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Should We Have Compassion for Killers?

jail cell

Last week, convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was released from prison by the Scottish government, on “compassionate grounds.” He is dying of cancer and has less than three months to live. Initial reactions were strong, but deeply divided. Here are just some of the millions of opinions that flew back and forth on Twitter, in the hours that followed:

I hope his plane falls from the sky like the 283 people 20 years ago.

~ Tony Callaghan

Lockerbie …. I hope everyone in SCOTLAND gets cancer.

~ John Wright

Lots of anger about Lockerbie bomber release. Worth noting that the case against al-Megrahi was always somewhat dubious.

~ Matthew Pallas

Why did they release that bloodthirsty killer MEGRAHI? COMPASSIONATE GROUNDS! What about compassion for the Lockerbie victims families!

~ Henry William Louis

So Megrahi is released. I am proud that we are capable of such humanity even as we still grieve for those lost at Lockerbie.

~ Clare Meikle

Oh Scotland, may I remind you that Muslims have no concept of compassion and mercy. Freeing Megrahi will be a show of weakness in their eyes.

~ Rachel Hunter

Mind is changed on Megrahi, [Scottish Justice secretary] MacAskill made good points…. Hopefully this will help build bridges with the East.

~ Thomas Scott

Totally and utterly shocking that #megrahi – mass murderer – is now FREE!! Where’s the justice??? I’m ashamed to be Scottish today!! >:-(

~ Colin Sales

“Where’s the justice” is a good question.

I contend that there is none to be found here. How do you make the deaths of 270 innocents just? What action could one possibly take at this point to create justice out of this, or this?

Killing Megrahi? Obviously that won’t fix things. What about killing him 270 times? Not possible, but even if it were it still wouldn’t eliminate the suffering of the victims’ families, nor would it create a reason for their deaths.

It seems to me that attempting to create justice in a situation where there is clearly a permanent injustice is a vain attempt to reverse suffering after it has happened. Ironically, the way people tend to do this is by inflicting suffering themselves. Let him rot in a cell. Let him suffer and die away from his family. Justice must be served.

But surely we need punishments for crimes!

Of course we do. Let’s examine why we have prisons in the first place.

The Unwritten Fourth Purpose of Prison

Standard doctrine in democratic countries is that imprisonment serves society in three ways:

1) Deterrence – The threat of punishment discourages people from engaging in illegal acts.

2) Protection –
If somebody is behind bars they are physically prevented from hurting people outside the bars.

3) Rehabilitation – The experience of incarceration can convince a convict to refrain from harming society upon his release.

They do make sense. In the case of Al-Megrahi, it seems that all three of these purposes have been served to the extent they can be. At this point, the deterrent effect could not conceivably be undermined, knowing that an early release comes on the condition that one must already be rotting from cancer and a few months from death. There is no threat that the frail Megrahi will spend his last weeks orchestrating another bombing. Rehabilitation is irrelevant if the prisoner was never to be released. Any turning over of new leaves would have happened already.

But many (notably a full 82% of Americans) believe he should stay in jail anyway, even though the supposed purposes of his incarceration have been fulfilled.

Why do people believe offering a somewhat dignified death to Megrahi (or cancer-riddled Manson killer Susan Atkins, for that matter) is somehow less just than keeping him in prison? Where do we get the idea that society is served by ensuring this person’s continued suffering, and that society is not served by offering compassion?

Of course there is another reason why we punish people. A messy, ugly reason.

I understand the outrage, I really do. The urge to punish is part of human nature. We’ve all felt that desire: the impulse to hurt someone who has hurt others. It feels like the right thing to do. I do get this feeling from time to time, particularly when I feel personally violated. You’ve probably felt it if you’ve ever walked up to your car to discover the window smashed, or if you or someone close to you has ever been mugged, assaulted, or worse. It is a burning, consuming emotion.

And that’s why I don’t trust it. Even in myself. Males in particular tend to experience desires of vengeance very intensely. People kill others over card games and road rage incidents. I’ve caught myself thinking about kicking someone’s skull in for stealing my bike. These feelings are ugly, violent and very much a part of humanity. But we don’t always act on them.

Cinema very often celebrates these feelings, perhaps because there is no other place to safely indulge them. The movies are full of vigilantes “righting wrongs” by avenging deaths, overpowering bullies, and restoring all that’s good in the world.

By the movie’s end, the wholly bad guy is killed in spectacular fashion by the wholly good guy, a feeling of wellness is restored, and the house lights come up. That’s Hollywood’s function: it lets us indulge in exactly the feelings we want without repercussions for either ourselves or our species.

In my view, the reason emotions exist is to create bias. They attract or repel us to or from an idea disproportionately. We lose our faculties of discernment and pragmatism when we’re distraught — or consumed by any emotion for that matter, whether it’s affection or hatred.

The motivational overkill supplied by high levels of fear or hate can be useful in acute survival situations, but I think we should avoid it as a benchmark for how to run our society.

Unfortunately some people not only trust that emotion, but celebrate it. Delight in it.

Look at the venom in some of the anti-compassion tweets. Ordinary, everyday people are calling for blood. I believe it’s because they are frustrated with the fact that a human being could cause so much suffering. Only a monster could do this. Not a person. They are terrified to acknowledge that Megrahi, and Atkins, and the Unabomber and the Nazis are all the same animal as us. It is an awful thought, that the “nature” end of the nature-nurture equation can allow such horrible outcomes.

And it so comforts and warms the ego to think we’re unquestionably on the proper side of the fence. Of course, everyone thinks they are. Terrorists certainly do. People like to feel right. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. When one can identify somebody that is totally, inarguably wrong, it’s a golden opportunity to feel good about oneself. That’s the primary function of news networks: the ego high it gives the viewer. Even a wife-beater can feel righteous if he’s talking about what society should do with mass murderers.


When someone does something appalling (and gets caught), people try to distance themselves from that person. They act as though they are a different animal completely, because they can’t bear the fact that they too are an unstable, emotion-driven creature that could also do something horrible.

All of these desperate and depraved acts we see ‘bad people’ do, we are all ultimately capable of them too. Under different circumstances, with a different upbringing and different experiences, every one of us could be a killer. But if you got lucky, and that’s not the way it turned out, you might be inclined to put yourself on a distinctly higher plane. A good percentage of people (82, evidently) would insist that certain others should be denied humanity and dignity because of the destructive manner in which their life is turning out.

We’d like to think that killing and cruelty is not a part of us, that it’s not human, but it is very human.

In addition to the three noble justifications for punishment listed above, the compelling fourth reason is sheer frustration. We know humanity has an awful side, and we‘d love to convince ourselves that it is cleanly confined to a few bad individuals, whom we can imprison or destroy. The foolish notion that there are good people and bad people is predicated on this kind of wishful thinking. If it were black and white like that, we’d actually be able to solve the problem of crime and violence.

But it’s grey, and we’re no closer to eliminating crime than we were in the Middle Ages. Like it or not, there is cruelty and insanity in each of us, exposed in varying degrees by the roll of the nature-nurture dice. And we hate that, we don’t want to believe it. We really dislike that part of our species, so we say it only exists in other individuals, leaping at the chance to point it out (and prescribe a fitting remedy) whenever it boils over in someone else.

So as humans, we have a flaw. Let’s stop pretending it’s only someone else’s flaw.

The Role of Compassion

Knowing that people do sometimes hurt others, sometimes very badly and publicly, what do we do?

We need to acknowledge that we’re all the same animal. Susan Atkins, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, Jeffrey Dahmer and any other killers are just humans who have gone deeply astray, but they are still human. Still assembled from the same stuff.

It certainly serves society to protect ourselves from dangerously astray people by restricting their freedom in some cases. We also know it is sometimes possible to deter people from hurting others by enforcing consequences for crimes. So we need prison.

But it also serves us to be compassionate to them all, even as we enforce punishments.

The most common argument against a compassionate release is that the the killer didn’t have compassion for his victims, and therefore does not deserve compassion from us.

This is a misunderstanding of compassion. Compassion has nothing to do with what is “deserved.” It is not something that is earned.

Compassion is not just being nice. It is a basic understanding of what it means to be a fallible, suffering human being, and an expression of that understanding. If we can bring to our justice proceedings the understanding that we’re all fundamentally the same in nature, and that we can’t choose our nurture, we stand a far better chance at rehabilitating offenders.

Much more importantly, compassion undermines the self-righteous mentalities that lead to feuds, wars, violence and oppression. All of these travesties require the dehumanization of other people in order to rationalize them.

Compassion is not bleeding-heart liberalism. It is not pity. It’s simply an intelligent response to the world’s biggest problem. The kill-the-bad-guys approach has never worked, it’s time to smarten up. It’s based on the falsehood of good and evil, rather than the unfortunate reality that normal humans are capable of horrible things under certain circumstances. Read about the Milgram Experiment or the Stanford Prison Experiment if you have doubts.

I suppose I’m biased, but in all of the debates that followed the Megrahi announcement, the compassionate side always seemed to present the more eloquent and intelligent arguments. The “let him rot” side seemed to be speaking purely from emotion, with rampant capital letters and triple exclamation marks.

Is This Ruling A Step Forward?

I was very encouraged at the precedent that was set last week. It demonstrated that even a cold, impersonal justice system can recognize that even someone who has caused incalculable suffering is still human, and that it is a service to ourselves to refrain from reciprocating cruelty just because the law allows for it. The eye for an eye mentality is a trap. It makes us wicked ourselves, and it takes a brave but unpopular person to help us out of that miserable cycle.

But not so fast. There may be political reasons behind this move:

Is Al-Megrahi’s compassionate release a tactical decision to make him drop latest appeal proving that he was victim of miscarriage of justice?

~ Dr Squirrel

Megrahi always maintained his innocence, and the conviction was indeed dubious. It is not out of the question to suggest that Megrahi’s latest appeal could have revealed that the trial was indeed a miscarriage. If that were the case, the Scottish government would much rather weather the relatively mild fallout from this controversial release, than admit that a) they jailed an innocent man, and that b) after twenty years, still nobody has been held responsible for this mass murder. MacAskill, in his interview with Wolf Blitzer, never acknowledged the possibility of Megrahi’s innocence.

I hope that isn’t the case. I would like to think we’ve reached a point in our evolution where not just individuals but governments are recognizing the profound potential for compassion to improve society.

But even if the release was politically motivated, the precedent for compassion has still been set, and may usher in a new approach to dealing with dying prisoners.

And it’s about time. This “get medieval” mentality isn’t working anymore. Never did.

We’re stuck with the nature part of humankind, our only hope is to refine the nurture part.


Photos by jondoeforty1 and Artmakesmesmile

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John August 27, 2009 at 12:42 am

Magnificent post, David. I was stuck on every word.It is because of the instinct of human kind that we do what we do. Unfortunately, though we like to think we have come far (just because we can stack earth and metal high and call them buildings, or we can color pieces of material green and call it valuable), we have not yet realized that our core programming within our DNA is heavily based on emotion.

We must see past into how we feel and venture deeper into what we know is right.
.-= John´s last blog ..Are You a Leader or a Follower? =-.

David August 27, 2009 at 6:36 am

Thanks John. I think you’re absolutely right: emotion rules all, and if we don’t question them we’re only going to go in circles.

Ian | Quantum Learning August 27, 2009 at 6:09 am

David, I bow to your courage in tackling such an emotive and important issue, and the intelligent and loving way you’ve written about it.

I can only agree with much of what you say here.

I do wonder how much of our desire for vengeance (punishment) is natural and how much is learned. I think when we’re in pain ourselves then we want that pain to be heard and acknowledged … and punishment seems to serve that purpose. I’m certain it’s not the only way to get our pain heard … so I tend to think it’s learned.

I like your three reasons for prison. I don’t have any statistics, but I have this idea that it’s not especially effective as a deterrent or as rehabilitation and the main (important) purpose then is to protect society.

I believe we should have compassion for everyone. When we fail to see the human being behind someone committing violence then we add to the violence ourselves (I was especially struck by the Twitter comment calling for the whole of Scotland to be struck down by cancer!). Only by seeing the failed humanity behind these acts can we start to understand and then take action that might actually do something about it. That doesn’t exclude locking people up if that is the only way to protect us.

I somehow doubt that the Lockerbie atrocity was the result of one man randomly taking it upon himself! If life was that simple then surely we would have eliminated violence generations ago.
.-= Ian | Quantum Learning´s last blog ..Mind your own business =-.

David August 27, 2009 at 6:43 am

Hi Ian, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that prison is not hugely effective as a deterrent much of the time, and I think the current system actually achieves the opposite of rehabilitation. But society is still stuck on the idea that you can punish a person into behaving well, and that’s just naive. Punishment’s most immediate purpose is to satisfy our anger about what happened by directing it towards the perpetrator, not to really make anything better.

Those tweets were just a few of thousands of vicious tweets. The vast majority were quite nasty, I had to scroll through a few pages to find some more thoughtful ones.

Jay Schryer August 27, 2009 at 7:00 am

Well, I was all et to leave a comment, but Ian said what I wanted to say:

“I think when we’re in pain ourselves then we want that pain to be heard and acknowledged … and punishment seems to serve that purpose.”

Indeed, I think this is the reason for a lot of violence, and a lot of abuse and argument, too. When we are in pain, we want that pain acknowledged, verified, or maybe even validated by others. One way of doing that (which is highly ineffective) is by lashing out at others. Thus, the cycle of violence continues to spin until at some point (one would hope) reason prevails, and the cycle is ended.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..Finally, An Answer =-.

David August 27, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Yeah, Ian really nailed it. We want to express grief, and society has become used to the custom of expressing it at someone, who is considered to be the perceived source of it. I think the source is much deeper than any one individual.

Hilda August 27, 2009 at 8:33 am

As John said, magnificent post David!

I think you hit the nail on the head with this: “[Compassion]
is a basic understanding of what it means to be a fallible, suffering human being, and an expression of that understanding. If we can bring to our justice proceedings the understanding that we’re all fundamentally the same in nature, and that we can’t choose our nurture, we stand a far better chance at rehabilitating offenders.

When something really pushes our buttons it is a signal to look within. We are attracted to qualities or traits that we wish to possess in ourselves, and are repelled by what we deny in ourselves. It’s all there, whether we like it or not, and whether we recognise it or not. To be compassionate is not to excuse the atrocity, but to realise that “there but for the grace of God go I”.
.-= Hilda´s last blog ..Meditation: the benefits to the physical body =-.

David August 27, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Hi Hilda. I think that’s been the major turning point in my life: learning to look within when I feel pain, instead of without, though I never heard anyone articulate it like that until now. Thanks.

Craig | BloomVerse August 27, 2009 at 9:33 am

I especially like where you specify that compassion is not about deserving. So many people believe that compassion, and everything for that matter, is a barter system. You don’t have to like or agree with what someone does to have compassion. It’s unconditional, and has nothing to do with approving of actions.

But alas, as much as emotional instability is a part of the human condition, so is the primal urge to turn around and ferociously punish those who have committed the crimes that appall us. As though there is a difference when done in the name of vengeance.

Excellent post, David.
.-= Craig | BloomVerse´s last blog ..Right now you don’t have any problems =-.

David August 27, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Thanks Craig. That’s right, it’s being talked about like a barter system. Unconditional, that’s the word.

suzen August 27, 2009 at 9:58 am

Hi David,
I agree with you, and the others, about your point about compassion. I’ve long suspected this was not a one-man job and entertained the notion that while he may not be innocent totally, there was haste to blame this atrocity on somebody fast to quell the screaming demands of justice – ah yes, that elusive notion!

The tweets being vicious is no surprise. Emotions seem to rule, don’t they? Knee jerk comments are often the daily fare with not a lot of thinking behind them. All this being said, I still find it twisted that he is being received in his homeland as a hero.
.-= suzen´s last blog ..Optimizing Life: Body, Mind and Spirit =-.

David August 27, 2009 at 12:59 pm

That is disturbing, the Libyan hero’s welcome. I suppose they feel like the bombing was a victory of sorts. Or perhaps they are convinced he is innocent, we really can’t get in their heads. I guess it is a reminder that right and wrong are only perspectives. So any cruelty waged by the Western ‘good guys’ is no more justifiable than cruelty waged by any other viewpoint.

Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching August 27, 2009 at 11:43 am

Thanks for these thoughts David. What came up for me as I read the post was how poisonous anger becomes when we try to rationalize it and distinguish between “moral” and “immoral” rage and violence. If we could just admit “I feel angry at this person and want to hurt them” without cloaking it in righteous moralizing, I think, that would help us see our anger for what it really is.

David August 27, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Great point Chris. The rage always comes from the same place: “I feel angry and I want to hurt them.” The moralizing is just spinning the same disturbing mechanism in a different direction. Thanks for your comment, Chris, you said what took me 2000 words to say.

Rev. T. Monkey August 27, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Excellent blog, as usual. I am often one of those males who rants and raves and visualizes crushing skulls when confronted with injustice, and I’ve discovered that the ranting and raving is there to cover up my basic sense of pain and discomfort. I need the wisdom of two spiritual traditions to help me with this constant struggle to be compassionate and kind to those who don’t “deserve” it. (And, as both of those traditions note, in their own distinctive ways, the irony is that I’m one of those who don’t “deserve” it.)

Keep up the good work!
.-= Rev. T. Monkey´s last blog ..Someone has to do this: A fool and clown for God and humanity’s sake =-.

David August 27, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Very insightful, Reverend. Happens to me too. Anger deceives, that’s it’s nature. Thanks for the feedback.

Jared | SpiritualZen.net August 27, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Very interesting topic. Compassion and forgiveness are for us, not for the guilty. I believe in the power of being convicted by our sins, not because of them. People who say there is no justice and are demanding blood do so because they attempt to understand.

Shall we keep a serial killer alive to study and attempt to understand as to prevent it in the future? Doesn’t work, never has. We cannot fix flawed thinking with flawed thinking. All of our thoughts are flawed in some aspect. Forgiveness is the only way to true freedom. Like you said, people want justice by inflicting more suffering. What’s the opposite of suffering and pain? Love maybe? The more power you give something, attention, attempt at understanding, the more it grows. And don’t even get me started on the media “if it bleeds it leads” mentality.

My goal today is to only give and receive love. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I ask myself, have I ever done the same? More than likely less. Of course I have never murdered someone, but have I had the thought? Sure. Granted all this peace and love everyone jargon is great for me, I haven’t had a loved one murdered or killed. Not sure I would think the same then, guess that’s when the rubber hits the road.

I like to think I will, at least today I’m praying for the will to love and forgive.

Oh, and on the topic of punishment as a deterrent… I don’t believe most people who choose not to kill, avoid it because of the punishment. Although a lot who do, afterward probably wish they hadn’t.
.-= Jared | SpiritualZen.net´s last blog ..Resentment, the Spiritual Time Killer and How to Avoid it =-.

David August 28, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Always good to hear from you Jared. Very thoughtful comment.

Yeah the deterrent effect is rather limited. For some reason a lot of people think that increasing penalties is the way to stop crime. Criminals act for emotional reasons, not because they’ve carefully weighed the pros and cons.

“Yeah I’d be happy to do ten years, but not fifteen. I guess it’s stupid to rob that bank after all.”

Patrick Schriel August 27, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Real compassion is only true if we don’t expect something back. Real compassion means that we can forgive even the people who have hurt us the most.
.-= Patrick Schriel´s last blog ..Conscious Living: Why I chose not to be a Couch Potato =-.

David August 28, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Now this man gets it. Forgiveness and compassion are as powerful as they are misunderstood.

jeri August 28, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Compassion was keeping this killer alive for his horrific crime for all these years–weakness was letting him free. Bridges to the East? Talk about an immature childlike comment–didn’t this murder get a hero’s welcome from the East? Its not for you folks to decide on compassion for this person– its for the victims families. Enough already with the politically correctness.

David August 28, 2009 at 3:06 pm

The ramifications of how human beings respond to crime extend far beyond the victims’ families. The reason this bombing occurred in the first place is because one group of people were able to rationalize cruelty against another.

Much is made of ‘closure’ that supposedly occurs when the offender is killed or tortured or otherwise dehumanized.

There’s no closure for something as jarring as losing a loved one violently. There is only some comfort to be found. The comfort of destroying or dehumanizing the offender is very attractive to people who are suffering, as might be anger, drug abuse, or any other manner of destructive activities. That doesn’t mean it’s helpful.

We must stop seeking comfort in cruelty unless we want violence to continue. It is exactly this philosophy of justified cruelty that caused the violence in the first place, not the intrinsic ‘badness’ of certain individuals.

Terrorist acts against western populations are celebrated in some cultures because they fell for the same trap; they believe that cruelty is justified against certain people because of crimes they they perceive them as having committed.

Compassion has nothing to do with political correctness. We’re talking about intelligent approaches to a problem that plagues human beings everywhere.

The politically correct thing to do is pander to the public’s knee-jerk emotional reactions, call it ‘solved’ and ignore the consequences for humanity.

Craig | BloomVerse August 29, 2009 at 9:24 pm

“Its not for you folks to decide on compassion for this person”

The definition of compassion may be nebulous here. It’s absolutely each individual person’s decision whether or not they have compassion for someone. But being compassionate does not mean you condone. It doesn’t mean you agree with the actions of a person. It has nothing at all to do with those things.

And political correctness it is not. Political correctness is social dumbing out of a sense of moral obligation to please everyone. That’s not what is being talked about here.

jeri August 28, 2009 at 5:25 pm

Silly drivel–
Locking up a mass murderer is not cruel. Your abstract rhetoric is an amusing exercise–but not related to reality.

David August 28, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Tell me again why we lock people up.

Is there any real purpose to keeping Megrahi in jail at this point, other than emotional reasons?

All I’m saying is that there is a societal benefit to admitting that even killers are human, and there is a great societal cost to making people die in jail once the utilitarian reasons of their incarceration have been served. It perpetuates the false dichotomy between good people and bad people that is used to rationalize all violence, most notably terrorist bombings.

If you don’t see it you don’t see it. I know I’m not changing your mind.

The world today is as peaceful as it is able to get under the oversimple “to hell with people who do bad things” philosophy. If you’re comfortable with today’s level of senseless violence, then I suppose you have no reason to reconsider your position on it. The killers agree with you.

jeri August 28, 2009 at 7:42 pm

silly and immature–childlike response–we lock up mass murders so they can’t murder again.
I dont care a wit why this evil person murdered innocent people. i just dont want him to be able to do it again. its that simple. if you want to pander to evil people go for it. i absolutely have no sympathy for mass murders, unlike you. you can rationalize it all you want, but in the end if a mass murderer is locked up the chances are he will have a difficult time doin it again. you may want to go visit this evil doer and find out if he had a difficlut childhood and was dissed by the west and has hurt feelings. its probably time for you well spent, i could care less.

David August 29, 2009 at 9:01 pm

Jeri, in the post I said I agree that protecting ourselves from dangerous people is a legitimate reason for jailing people. I’m starting to think you just skimmed the article and didn’t read it.

I don’t believe he is able to do it again at this point. He’s on death’s door, and I would not advocate his release if I felt it made him capable of a repeat offense. Like I said, he may have been released because the Scottish government knew they made a mistake in convicting him.

I dont care a wit why this evil person murdered innocent people.

Then you don’t care what we can do to prevent this from happening again.

This is the problem with the prevailing philosophy of justice. It thinks the problem is solved when the killer is caught. Crime is a symptom of a much larger problem, and not caring why it happens is exactly why it does.

Stephen - Rat Race Trap August 29, 2009 at 12:10 pm

David, I usually agree with you. In this case I don’t. One important thing you left of your list of reasons. JUSTICE. It’s about justice. A giant hole in your theory. Aside from that, if compassion for one mass murderer creates pain for hundreds of wronged family members, I think even your compassion argument fails.

You were welcome to visit Scotland and convey your compassion to him any time you wished. I guess you have to go to Libya for that now.

What about the compassion for the families that were hurt by this move? I guess they don’t matter. This move allowed this man to go home and receive the sad spectacle of a hero’s welcome for mass murder. Just more compassion for the families I guess. I’m sure they are comforted. I totally disagree with you on this.
.-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..The Dash =-.

David August 29, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Hi Stephen, thanks for your response.

I understand where you’re coming from, it used to be my position too.

It does come down to philosophy. There are two opposing philosophies of punishment: consequentialist and deontological. Consequentialist means we only punish people in order to improve society. I no longer believe we should take it further than that.

The Deontological approach believes in objective morality that can be balanced out by reciprocating harm, serving the notion of justice. A horrible act is remedied to some degree by punishing the perpetrator. Good vs evil, and of course, we’re good. It is not concerned with the consequences of the service of justice, only that it is served, whatever that means to the people involved.

I don’t know how anyone could argue that justice is not subjective. What you might call justice, I might call irresponsible comfort-seeking. What we call mass murder, a terrorist calls “justice.”

Of course I have compassion for the victims’ families. There are many ways to comfort people, and not all of them are necessarily good for society or for the victims in the long run. I’m sure many victims’ families would torture the offender if it were possible. Should society allow them to indulge that wish if they would find comfort in it?

Question: What is justice to you, in specific terms? I believe justice is just an emotion that makes people feel like they have a sense of power over a tragedy that has already occurred. I believe it prevents people from coming to terms with what happened, attaching their relief instead to some sort of act of revenge.

Anyone wishing a horrible death on Megrahi will get their wish anyway.

Stephen - Rat Race Trap August 30, 2009 at 10:10 am

You may have compassion for the victims families, but in all the compassion talk in your article I guess I missed that part. It all seemed to be for the mass murder who I believe spend no more than 10 years in prison for murdering 270 people.

I’m pretty sure the Hero’s welcome home is not important to him. I mean when people know they are going to die, they just sit there and die because nothing that happens between now and then is important right? Yes, I’m being sarcastic. You seem to be caught up in the fact that he is going to die so what difference does it make. It makes a lot of difference.

This act of “compassion” ripped opened a wound for thousands of family members that was at least partially closed after a long time chasing the killer down. As I said you may have compassion in your mind for these family members but I think the fact your long article was focused on the murderer shows it is a very narrow view of compassion. Their viewpoint was not brought out.

My view of justice is that you pay the price for your actions. Whether there is any danger you will do it again or whether you have been rehabilitated or whatever, you suffer the punishment. That’s why I don’t get into all the debates about whether the death penalty is a deterrent or not. It’s not about deterrence, it’s about justice. Going home to a Hero’s welcome and dying in the arms of your family and homeland after spending a few years in prison for murdering 270 people while ripping open the wounds of the families of 270 innocent dead people is not justice. Not in my world anyway. It’s not compassion either (your argument) unless you are only compassionate about the murderer.
.-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..The Dash =-.

David August 30, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Stephen, the title of the article is “Should we Have Compassion For Killers?” I don’t think it’s in dispute that we should have compassion for victims and their families. Compassion to victims does not necessarily mean providing comfort without regard to the long-term consequences. Providing comfort is not necessarily healthy, nor is it necessarily compassionate.

As I said, the reasons why people blow up planes may not be any different from the reasons other people want to see them hanged for it.

You did not address my point about victims’ families seeking comfort in the idea of torture, and that’s really at the heart of the conundrum: sometimes we are comforted by what is neither good for us nor for our species.

There is a much bigger picture to this issue. It is not about bombings and the justice system, it’s about how we deal with tragedy as humans. I believe acceptance is the only real way to overcome tragedy, but perhaps you don’t and that is the crux of our disagreement.

Attachment to a certain fate befalling a certain person in order to get over a catastrophe only hinders acceptance and exacerbates suffering needlessly for the victims. The current justice system encourages the belief that salvation from tragedy can come from taking actions like this after the fact. This puts the victims’ well-being firmly out of their control and in the hands of political forces, as we’re seeing happen now.

Please don’t say I don’t care about the victims. I just don’t buy the traditional method of “helping” them: encouraging dependence on what happens to the perpetrator. This attachment robs people of power over their own suffering because their recovery becomes contingent on what happens in arenas they can’t control.

I know they are hurting as a result of this decision, and that’s because their emotional well-being is invested helplessly in what happens to Megrahi. They have little control over how they feel because society has taught them that how they feel should be a function of what happens to the man they’ve been told is the killer.

Society reinforces this kind of suffering for millions of people by perpetuating the myth that we have the power to make the universe just. I doubt any of them would trade their loved one for a justly-punished mass murderer, but that is the ‘balance’ that is being striven for here, after the fact. This idea of being able to balance out good and evil is an ancient falsehood that creates inescapable, lasting misery for victims everywhere.

What about ten years ago, when they hadn’t convicted anybody for this? How did they feel then? The Scottish authorities faced immense pressure to produce a conviction — any conviction…something we can cling to and call ‘justice.’

Now that they think they’ve found it in Megrahi, his fate becomes all-important. His life, and the power the public has over it, is a symbol of power we would like to have over tragedy after it has happened. But that power doesn’t really exist, and Megrahi’s fate cannot save anybody from anything. As I said, there is no justice for mass murder, but we still hunt for it and depend on finding it.

This article is not about Megrahi or any particular case. It’s about the destructive philosophy of attempting to undo or medicate tragedy by hurting the people whom we perceive to be the cause of it. It is pretty clear that you are missing this point, whether it’s the fault of my inadequate writing skills or your attachment to the traditional philosophy of justice.

I’ve explained all I can explain. There certainly are different schools of thought on this tricky issue and I don’t expect everyone to agree.

Craig | BloomVerse August 29, 2009 at 10:15 pm


I wonder, will Megrahi’s death heal the wounds of the families who lost their loved ones? I doubt it.

But let’s pretend it will. Will his physical location then matter? After all, it really makes no difference whether he dies in prison or anywhere else. If his death is the light switch that ends the families’ suffering, location is irrelevant.

But obviously, anyone opposing his release will not agree with that. That wouldn’t be “justice.” He must die while located in a prison cell. Otherwise, his death is not bad or heinous enough to be considered justice.

So let’s say he stays in jail and dies. Does that version of justice end the families’ suffering?

Nope. Not so long as the primal reaction of vengeance is embraced. Vengeance doesn’t lead to satiation, because it in and of itself causes suffering. So even if he dies in jail, the suffering lives on.

As paradoxical as it may seem, their only solace will be getting to the point where they themselves feel compassion for him. That doesn’t mean they condone his actions, or like him. That’s not what compassion is. Rather, in this case it’s the point at which acceptance of what cannot be changed is reached. It’s beyond emotional responses, when all of that falls away there is nothing but acceptance. That point is well beyond Megrahi and the justice system.

I think David’s post is intended to move beyond our natural and predictable emotional reactions as human beings and examine the human condition from a higher level of consciousness. At the level of emotional engagement, it won’t make a lick of sense.

The fact is, killing as punishment for killing has never worked. People still kill, and the victims’ families still suffer even after the criminal is put to death. The loved one is still gone, it still hurts. That being said, I am absolutely an advocate of incarcerating criminals. It’s completely necessary. But the points brought up here go beyond that.

Stephen - Rat Race Trap August 30, 2009 at 10:29 am

I agree. I’ve seen many victim’s say that they have brought closure by forgiving those who victimized them. No problem with that whatsoever. In fact I like to think it would be my approach. However, that is in fact something entirely different than letting them out of prison. I’ve never heard one of these same people then say “so let them go now”. You’re mixing two different issues.

Rightly or wrongly these families see this as a slap in the face. As compassion for the murderer without consideration of their feelings. Who can blame them? After all here we have a long blog article bleeding compassion for the murderer without considering the impact on them of letting him go home to his hero’s welcome. Do you blame them?
.-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..The Dash =-.

Jared | SpiritualZen.net August 29, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Looks like you hit a nerve on this one David. Good job. I think justice is subjective.
.-= Jared | SpiritualZen.net´s last blog ..Wants vs. Needs and Spiritual Growth =-.

David August 29, 2009 at 9:22 pm

Thanks Jared. It certainly is.

Find yourself with a smile... August 29, 2009 at 10:23 pm


Good job taking a stand… very nice.

I like your post, but I think there is something important missing.

Compassion doesn’t dictate action!

I agree that compassion is critical. Holding anger, resentment, the desire for revenge, etc… may all be directed at our perceived enemies… yet they really only hurt us. Compassion improves our interaction with others… but it is really the most powerful way to heal ourselves.

Compassion will affect our actions… but it doesn’t dictate them.

I can feel compassion for a rabid dog that is attacking my family… even while I shoot it.

I think we can feel compassion for the man whether we think he should be released from prison or not.

Perhaps we should develop compassion for our governments as well… because though they mimic it occasionally, I’m pretty unconvinced that they grasp it.

I would love to think that while the issue was being discussed, someone said “but this is the compassionate thing to do… we really should set an example and forgive this man”… but I find this really hard to believe (which might just be a reflection of my own consciousness).

I think it is time for us to take responsibility again… we should be setting the example for our government… not the other way around.

Regardless of how we decide we must act… it is critical that we let go of the negative emotional charge. It will warp our actions unless we let it go.

At least that’s what I think… :-)

keep smiling,

.-= Find yourself with a smile…´s last blog ..Thoughts For Donnie: Cultivating Acceptance =-.

David August 30, 2009 at 7:24 pm

I can feel compassion for a rabid dog that is attacking my family… even while I shoot it.

I totally agree Ben, we have to take drastic measures. I just want to make sure that they really are sound decisions and not are driven by outrage or other emotional reactions.

Find yourself with a smile... September 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Can’t argue with that.

It has been said that “Reason is a whore”.

That’s because it will “sell itself” to the dominant emotion of the moment.

This isn’t always bad… but we must learn to distinguish between real rational thought… and rationalizations driven by logic.

keep smiling…
.-= Find yourself with a smile…´s last blog ..A Quick Look at the Two Truths… =-.

Find yourself with a smile... September 1, 2009 at 2:08 pm

that was supposed to be “rationalizations driven by emotion”

Maybe I should calm down before I do any more writing…

.-= Find yourself with a smile…´s last blog ..A Quick Look at the Two Truths… =-.

David September 1, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Hey, that’s a great analogy. I’d heard that before and though it was just a curse, like “life’s a bitch.” Makes a lot of sense, thanks Ben.
.-= David´s last blog ..What I Learned From My Stint in The Traveling Reptile Show =-.

Eva August 30, 2009 at 2:00 am

Just found your blog, lots of good food for thot. I appreciate thinkers.
Just finished reading “The Shack”, it asks some of the same questions. If you haven’t read it yet I think you might find it interesting. Keep up the good site!

David August 30, 2009 at 7:25 pm

I will check out the shack. On the author’s web page you can read the first few pages and I’m intrigued.

Jared | SpiritualZen.net August 30, 2009 at 7:35 pm

I’ve read The Shack recently. It was pretty good and has a lot to do with forgiveness. Quick read and worth the time. But I will say I think I learned a great deal if not more from the section on forgiveness, FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES, from Emmet Fox’s, The Sermon On the Mount.

“Setting others free means setting yourself free, because resentment is really a form of attachment. It is a Cosmic Truth that it takes two to make a prisoner; the prisoner–and a gaoler. There is no such thing as being a prisoner on one’s own account. Every prisoner must have a gaoler, and the gaoler is as much a prisoner as his charge. When you hold resentment against anyone, you are bound to that person by a cosmic link, a real, though mental chain. You are tied by a cosmic tie to the thing that you hate.”
.-= Jared | SpiritualZen.net´s last blog ..Wants vs. Needs and Spiritual Growth =-.

David August 30, 2009 at 7:54 pm

“You are tied by a cosmic tie to the thing that you hate.”

Brilliant words, thanks Jared.

brigid August 30, 2009 at 5:29 am

To be honest, I don’t understand revenge.
What will change in our lives if a man has to stay in jail for longer, in his case, is releasing him from jail a favour or more punishment?
Its not like he can just “go home”. its a whole new trip for him, not only is he confronting his mortality but also he has to learn to live on the outside.
We all have things we have done in the past and admittedly I have not done anything in my recent past that is on par with this man, but still……..
Who am I to judge him?
The longer people hold on to the pain of the need for revenge the more they suffer. Revenge is a sad thing perpetrated by the justice system and the media.
I don’t believe it is a natural state for humans to be murderous but a misguided judgement by a race who has lost their way.
Revenge and punishment are instigated by the “powers that be” for their own personal power. They manage to make their misguided wants a common need by making it legal.
Yes, Justice may be subjective but it still doesn’t make it any easier to say we are the right one, with the right justice.
I cannot judge him or anyone. Its not my job and the older I get the less I know.
We need another form of deterrence as the jailing system isnt working anyway
I dont’ think Ghandi would have agreed with some of the methods of revenge requested
.-= brigid´s last blog ..What do Fascia, Bowen Therapy and Water Have In Common =-.

David August 30, 2009 at 7:44 pm

I totally agree, Brigid. What I would like people to take from this post is the idea that dealing with tragedy should perhaps not depend on what happens to the person who caused it.

In many cases it is never even known who the perpetrator is, and in many others the guilty are acquitted. If the victims depend on catching, convicting, and punishing the perpetrator in order to begin recovering from the tragedy, there are far too many contingencies that could prevent it from ever taking place. It happens all the time. That attachment makes them slaves to court proceedings and police investigations.

Megrahi’s conviction was always questionable anyway, I wonder what everyone would be saying if his appeal had gone ahead and his conviction had been overturned. It’s certainly not out of the question. What kinds of wounds would have been opened then?

Niyati August 31, 2009 at 9:36 pm

I just wanted to say I agree and your article gave me hope. Thank you.

David September 3, 2009 at 8:06 am

Hi Niyati. Thanks for saying so.

Vijay - Meditation Techniques Guide September 1, 2009 at 1:38 am

Excellent Post! The question – “Should we have compassion for killers?” is one that requires quite a deep thought and one needs to consider various aspects. Killers actually do not become killers overnight. In most cases, they have undergone deep trauma, repression and suffering. Rather than harsh punishments or just retention in prison, they need special treatment involving spiritual healing, meditation, prayer, love and compassion. That is essential to heal them from within and give them a new lease of life with self-respect.
.-= Vijay – Meditation Techniques Guide´s last blog ..Vipassana Meditation =-.

Jeri_Ara September 3, 2009 at 6:59 am

For those of you who can’t manage compassion, at least try to have empathy. And trace an act to its root cause before you judge. Having become schizophrenic myself, I can see why some murderers have killed. We are not monsters; we are human beings with a mental illness. Psychosis, delsuions, and voices can cause you to do things you would have never been capable of otherwise. There is no capacity to rationalize while this is going on in your mind. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. That is not to say that a person should not be institutionalized for crimes; it is to say that some of them should be in mental facilities rather than prison. I beleive that a person’s beliefs/dogma are a mini-version of this. I want to know what compels a killer to do what he/she does and I do believe that this understanding could lead to prevention. As far as punishment goes, those of you saying you seek justice are usually seeking vengeance. To seek vengeance makes you no more evolved than the killer himself. And there will never be justice on this planet and you need to come to accept that. Maybe an afterlife will allow for that…if there is one…who knows…karma would be a beautiful thing. For those of you like Stephen and Ms. Jeri, you are unable to see what reality is beyond your own mental/emotional desires. Look for the cause and be objective. There is little punishment for one who is mentally ill. How many prisons can one be in at the same time? The prison of hell in your own mind is the worst. When I look at Manson and Son of Sam and others and realize I have the same illness as them, I admit it terrifies me. Fortuantely meds worked for me and I am presently psychosis-free. The victims’ families do need compassion but so do the perpetrators. Sometimes they are victims as well. If we don’t seek to understand underlying causes and only seek retribution what does that say about evolution of consciousness in humanity as a whole? But I suppose many of you see no need to evelove because you see yourselves on that plane as “right” or perfect already. Well, you aren’t; you are flawed and human as are we all.

David September 3, 2009 at 8:11 am

Another Jeri!

Thanks for the insightful response. There are factors involved here that run far deeper than the erroneous right/wrong good/bad dichotomies. Many people don’t want to look at where this behavior comes from, they only want to destroy it, as if the causes don’t matter.

Great comment, thank you.

Yalcin September 15, 2009 at 3:05 am

Wow David…That’s a great post. I totally agree with you there. I’ve actually been reading your blog for a while but definitely deserve an applause for taking a stand on this controversial issue. People sometimes think they’re so “good” and “righteous” and they fail to see that they acting on the exact same emotion as the killer. I agree with you on what the purposes of prisons are. Wishing “anyone” to die painfully for the sake of justice, makes you(almost) no different than the killer(of course wishing and doing are two different things). Because, he too, once thought that he was serving justice by murdering those people. Imagine people in some countries who were delighted to see the WTC get attacked, they probably thought that the “evildoer” US was getting punished as she deserved. See my point? People who disagree with David: what would you think about those people? It all really comes down to what you were raised to believe was right. Sorry for getting a little off topic:)
BTW, you found just the right social psychology experiments to cite! And in my opinion, you’re just too high up on Kohlberg’s stages of morality:)

David September 15, 2009 at 6:40 am

Hi Yalcin,

It definitely is a controversial issue, and most people disagree. I think the evildoer perspective is completely ridiculous and it’s time we looked deeper at the problem of crime. Everyone taking stands on crime and punishment should read about the Milgram and Standford prison experiments.

andy@cheap air jordan June 10, 2010 at 9:31 am

I think we should consider having mercy on people like them. They deserve to live and give them the freedom before they die. I think everybody can change and the change will come after someone realize the he have done wrong.

David June 11, 2010 at 4:15 am

I see where you’re coming from. It’s not quite what I’m arguing for though. From my viewpoint it isn’t even about mercy. I’m very wary of the word “deserve.” What does it even mean?

I just don’t think there is any defensible reason to indulge in vengeance, and I think that’s what our made-up concept of ‘justice’ is about.

G October 13, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Animals seek vengeance as well. It’s non-rational.

Animals and Revenge

(hope this link works!)

Matthew Foote February 12, 2011 at 9:13 pm

I not being a criminal type am pissed off at the system! You people are just wanting to make money off of the state and us taxpayers! People who take someones life, rape young or old, rob, or pull a gun on anyone, let alone kill someone, should pay the ultimate price!! I am tired of seeing these people of getting away with murder, rape,child molestation, and we taxupayers have to pay our hard earned money to pay their attorntey bills and more than $100.00 a day just to keep these worthless people in prison!! America it is time to get rid of the rif-raf. We should do like China does, if you commit a terrible crime and you are a violent person, you need to be put to sleep@!! Thank You for listening to my opinion, but America would be a better and safer place if we start putting our foot down and quit messing with these messed up people! If they take or really mess up somebody they need to pay the same price that they gave the person or family that, they have affected. I, including most of the USA are sick of all the prisons we build to take care lf these people that cannot enter society ever again, why waist time, if convicted they need too pay the ultimate price for what they have done to innocent people; I`f you kill, you die, if you rape you die, espesially children, you die, if you are illegal you get deported, this way we would not need prisons because we would put across the message that we are not going to put up with this shit anymore!!!! Thank You for reading my opinion, and hopefully it will open a few eyes!!!

Tony May 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm

People ranting and raving about the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi claiming that he’s evil etc bla bla bla have obviously not bothered to research the story.
These people must understand that you can’t base your opinions on the information fed to us via the mainstream media, most of what they tell us is false. They aren’t in place to inform us they are there to support the false reality that is desired by the globalist bankers/military industrial/ whatever ? Our Masters is probably a more apt description of these shadowy people who keep their identity a tightly hidden secret.
The cover story is he’s being released on compassionate grounds but in reality they KNOW that he’s an innocent patsy and shouldn’t have been convicted in the first place. The Lockerbie bombing was a False Flag Operation perpetrated by one or more of the global intelligence agencies. It was part of their plan to keep the world population in the state of fear and belongs in a category with 911, The Bali Bombings, London bombings, Port Arthur massacre, Oklahoma bombing etc etc. NONE of these events where perpetrated by the false boogy man Isamic terrorist guy. He DOESN’T EXIST!!
Look at the big picture my friends join up the dots and start thinking, most of all TURN OFF YOUR TV it’s their means of conditioning your mind to their false reality.

Jim June 3, 2011 at 5:22 am

What a fantastic post and bunch of comments – Compassion is where it’s at, and ultimately will determine the future of humanity.

David alluded to but then succumbed to his own comfort zone when he said….
“I hope that isn’t the case. I would like to think we’ve reached a point in our evolution where not just individuals but governments are recognizing the profound potential for compassion to improve society.”
It’s highly unlikely that compassion was at work here…… the release actually stirred up a hornets nest of hate and added to the festering boil that is the demonisation of the muslim world.
It will be nigh-on impossible to prove, but if recent events surrounding the staged “death of Osama Bin Laden” http://joequinn.net/2011/05/08/osama-bin-ladens-nose-shoulders-and-left-ear/#more-71 are anything to go by, the deluded and deranged controllers of the world were at it again.

Jim June 3, 2011 at 5:32 am

The mass media’s idea of justice is really vengeance, and that reminds me of an old saying who’s source is unknown to me….

Vengeance is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.

Sahil December 31, 2011 at 3:22 am

This article reminded me about the story of Angulimala. Angulimala was a kind of hardcore serial killer in India when Buddha was alive. He used to hide in the jungle and kill a lot of people who were travelling through it. He made a garland of fingers ( from his dead victims ) and proudly wear it. Then one day he tried to kill Buddha who was passing through the jungle. However he was won over by Buddha’s compassion. After that Angulimala lived his life as a monk and became enlightened. He had become compassionate.Then one day , a couple of people spotted him and out of their anger, killed him. However Angulimala bore no hatred towards them.

This is wonderful example of how compassion can transform even a hardcore killer to a compassionate person.

Lottis July 29, 2012 at 3:48 am

Compassion is, what I think, the measurement of how high a culture has developed in accordance to the greatness that mankind can get. It is the key to a better world.
I just loved to read your thoughts about this subject, it is so clear. Revenge and many other brain-stem emotions are a threat to our development. And those cave-man thoughts take over our brains and we indulge in pleasing our instincts. It is like our newer and higher brain-functions have been hijacked by the stem, and we do not use the potential we are born with. We all need to stop and thing much more.
The dimensionals have to be many more in our thinking. there are too much judgments based on very flat conclusions, in our world, in our political and law systems. Muderes need compassion, but not totally for them selves, but for the situation that has made them into murderes. We have to understand fully how thy got into that position and then put our effort into preventing this to happen to others.

eben July 30, 2012 at 4:50 am

i loved this write…..invokes the actions that are seldom thought upon by humans…..this was really really good david….!

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