Brookfield Basics

A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.

Crime and Punishment

In 1866 Fyodor Dostoevsky published his immortal work Crime and Punishment, his penetrating study of crime, murder, and evil as portrayed through the timeless character of Raskolnikov.

The great novel has been in my thoughts as I have considered the death of Trayvon Martin.  It is an enormous story, with tout le monde focused upon it, and wagging tongues on both sides of the political aisle shamelessly engaged in their newest sport - tragedy trafficking.  And like bread at the Roman circus, the breathlessly complicit media hurl the loaves of hopelessly excessive coverage; little more than grist for its ever churning mills.  

Joseph Stalin once remarked, "a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic".  This too has been in my mind as I consider the death of Trayvon Martin, and try to fit it alongside my pending trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo; a land home to the bones of MILLIONS of savagely savagely murdered black men, women, and children.  How are we to make sense of such things, and how are we to contextualize such matters for our children?  And are we even prepared, any more, to try?  Are we willing to do the hard work of eschewing the passions of the moment long enough to remind ourselves that American society and political discourse have made it this far because they are founded upon institutions; institutions ordained and established by the benificent wisdom of our Founders?    

Only two people know what really happened that night; one of course is sadly and forever silenced.  And only one knows if race was a factor.  The now infamous tape of NBC's edited version of George Zimmerman's 911 call has been exposed for the shameless ploy that it was, but the unedited call is in my view, inconclusive, neither confirming nor dismissing the possibility of race based motive.  And so - into this vacuum of certainty step our national polls and political leaders of both right and left who, rather than offering measured comments of wisdom and calm, instead exhort and castigate us with the most sordid and maudlin of philippics, each trying to spin the cloth of political advantage.  Such deplorable conduct stands in stark contrast to Trayvon Martin's anguished parents; two individuals who are exhibiting that rarest of conduct - restraint and dignity. 

Would not a better approach be the offering of condolence and compassion to those who have suffered loss, and whilst doing so, calls for restraint as the work of the criminal investigative proccess occurs?  Should we not be reminded that it is the goal of that same process to value ALL life equally, and to investigate such matters with equal vigor, without regard to the skin color of the victim?  The fact that there are ostensible flaws in that process is obvious, for it is inhabited by flawed creatures like you and like me.  If it is determined that George Zimmerman acted with overt aggression, and is guilty of manslaughter or murder, then he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and subject to whatever level of penalty it prescribes.  That is the sytem our laws have ordained; without it we are left to the issuance of bounties and the formation of posses, one step removed from the old west.          

A very wise man I know; a member of England's "greatest generation", recently remarked, "When I was young, people used discuss matters of importance by asking the question, "what do you THINK about that?  Today, however, the dominating question we seem to hear is, "How do you FEEL about that"?

This is a critical difference, for political and social discourse in America today has turned into a conflagration of feeling, rather than of thoughtful reflection.  There are many reasons for this, two of the primary factors in my view being the faculties of our University system, and their egalitarian dedication to the obliteration of Descartes' famous statement, "cogito ergo sum".  Largely dedicated to exterminating the notion of objectively determinable ethics and morality, they have supplanted the French mathematician's declaration with the corrosive canard, "I FEEL  - therefore I am".  For many in this country, their feelings have become their morality.  Secondly, the explosion of communications technology, with its capacity to transmit information and images at a pace that all but overwhelms our capacity to assimilate them.  Each day brings its own menu of increasingly lurid and horrific headlines; each one needing to be successively more titallating, maudlin, or downright weird in order to grab the attention of our sedated eyes.

But whether you agree with these causes or not, does it not seem that we have either lost or discarded the willingness to think THROUGH such things?  This is a dangerous development, for like the frog in the slowly but ever warming pot of water, we are barely conscious of the impending boil.  

Lost underneath the fine and handsome visage of this young man, and the undeniable tragedy that is his death, is the hollow underpinning of hate crime legislation.  Perhaps once the molten stream of rhetoric cools a bit, it might solidify into a semblance of debate on that topic.  It would seem to me that judging a crime and the severity of its punishment on the criteria of whether or not it was motivated by or conducted for reasons related to race, is the foundation for all kinds of strife.  It is predicated on the notion that levels of guilt and punishment should be apportioned relative to a perpetrator's state of mind or pattern of thought; and that is a slippery slope indeed.  Leaving aside the obvious difficulty of being able to accurately discern such matters, does such a notion not implicitly place a higher value one specific type of human life over that of another?  And if that is true, does it not work in direct opposition the the goal of a society that is less conscious of race rather than more?  

The result of crime is personal damage in the form of physical harm, financial loss, and emotional trauma.  Is the level of the victim's suffering somehow determined by the motivation of the perpetrator?  Does a man's family suffer the loss of its husband and father more because his murderer may have been motivated by racial  prejudice, as opposed to greed or revenge or rage?  Are the injuries of an assault victim more grievous because of the thoughts her attacker may have had in their mind at the time of the beating?  In one of the most moving passages of Twentieth Century literature, another Russian, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, recounts his personal dark night of the soul.  Lying on a bed of rotting straw in a Soviet prison, he told us in his epic work The Gulag Archipeligo, that, "Gradually it was revealed to me that the line separating good and evil runs not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts".  

All of the legislation in the world, no matter how well intended, will ever erase that line, or bring light into the darker recesses of the human condition.  

Crime is crime and violence is violence, and in this equation there are perpetrators, victims, and the criminal justice system.  That system - institutions of officers and laws and courts - exists to investigate ACTIONS and to punish BEHAVIOR.  I do not believe it was or should be intended to discern thought or divine motivations, or to measure out the severity of punishment based upon such prescribed divinations.    

Let cops police society's conduct, and let investigators evaluate it.  Let attorneys be prosecutors and defenders, and judges be judges.  Their tasks are hurculean as it is; let's not add to them by insisting they be able to determine the intellectual or emotional motives of the very acts they are seeking to control and punish.

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