Location: Iowa, United States

61 years old (pretty old for a blogger) proud to be a grandpa

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Some Thoughts on Punishment

“Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.”
--Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), British Reformer.

Most of us would like to believe ourselves in sympathy with this simple quotation and others like it, believing it to be the view of modern and enlightened minds. I was reminded of such thinking while reading about the trial and conviction of 71 year old Bobby Frank Cherry who was found guilty a couple of years ago of the cruel and brutal 1963 bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four little girls. I remember the event and the national outrage that followed. Cherry’s conviction was viewed by just about everyone, including me, as welcome news. I wonder, though, just how sentencing a 71 year old man to a life sentence for a crime he committed nearly 40 years earlier serves to “lessen crime or reform the criminal.” Can we seriously view his sentence as a deterrent in any way? Will others, previously hell-bent on committing similar acts now think twice because of this event? Will Cherry somehow be “reformed”? Will society be safer now that he’s behind bars? If we’re honest with ourselves we can justify the judge’s ruling on the basis of only one principle: that of retributive justice, or “just desserts.” Cherry (since deceased) was sentenced to life imprisonment because “he deserved it.”

The larger issue, though, is why we punish anyone. In his remarkable essay, “On the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” C.S. Lewis not only justifies punishment on the basis of “just desserts” but baldly states that it is the ONLY justifiable reason for ANY punishment. Lewis presents his argument by examining and then dismissing the standard justifications for punishment. As for rehabilitation, there is certainly no evidence that we need to inflict intentional punishment to achieve it . We do need to keep criminals away from the rest of society, but, here again, there are ways of doing so without taking away their rights (except the right to go where they please). The most often cited justification for punishment, however, is that of deterrence. While deterrence may be a useful by-product of punishment, is it not unjust to derive deterrence from punishment without first establishing that the one being punished actually “deserved” to be punished in the first place? If this were not true, the criminal would be justified in protesting his punishment. After all, why should he be made to suffer just so others will not commit crimes?

The notion of "deserving justice" for its own sake is a pretty difficult thing for those possessed of modern sensibilities to swallow and yet, few of us have examined this issue (or ourselves) to consider the actual role the notion plays in our society.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Quote of the Day

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other. -- Eric Hoffer

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Lest They Offend

BBC edits out the word terrorist
By Tom Leonard
(Filed: 12/07/2005)
The BBC has re-edited some of its coverage of the London Underground and bus bombings to avoid labelling the perpetrators as "terrorists", it was disclosed yesterday.
Early reporting of the attacks on the BBC's website spoke of terrorists but the same coverage was changed to describe the attackers simply as "bombers".
The BBC's guidelines state that its credibility is undermined by the "careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgments".
Consequently, "the word 'terrorist' itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding" and its use should be "avoided", the guidelines say.
Rod Liddle, a former editor of the Today programme, has accused the BBC of "institutionalised political correctness" in its coverage of British Muslims.
A BBC spokesman said last night: "The word terrorist is not banned from the BBC."