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.
Lockerbie …. I hope everyone in SCOTLAND gets cancer.
Lots of anger about Lockerbie bomber release. Worth noting that the case against al-Megrahi was always somewhat dubious.
Why did they release that bloodthirsty killer MEGRAHI? COMPASSIONATE GROUNDS! What about compassion for the Lockerbie victims families!
So Megrahi is released. I am proud that we are capable of such humanity even as we still grieve for those lost at Lockerbie.
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.
Mind is changed on Megrahi, [Scottish Justice secretary] MacAskill made good points…. Hopefully this will help build bridges with the East.
Totally and utterly shocking that #megrahi – mass murderer – is now FREE!! Where’s the justice??? I’m ashamed to be Scottish today!! >:-(
“Where’s the justice” is a good question.
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?
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.