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Down the Path of Humaneness

Many people view politicizing memorable and tragic experiences as somehow vulgar, but anyone that takes politics seriously shouldn’t partition society’s most significant events away from public policy. Of course, we need to guard against the mirror hazards of trivialization and demagoguery whenever highly emotional matters touch our politics.

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Sohrab Ahmari uses the horrific tragedy in Colorado and the anniversary of the Norwegian mass murder to illuminate how America and Norway view justice. Writing mostly for an American audience, his opinion piece seeks to generate exasperation at how lenient Norway will treat its mass murderer.

Norwegian prisons are often described as the world’s nicest. And as the London Telegraph reported in May, prison officials may even hire outside “friends” to keep Breivik company. Norwegian law holds that no prisoner—not even Breivik—should ever find himself in total isolation. That would be too cruel.

All this sounds outrageous—and it is. Norwegian society has advanced so far down the path of “humaneness” that it cannot put someone like Breivik to death, let alone jail him for life.

Interestingly, Ahmari never actually makes an argument for why Norway’s system is bad. That it “sounds outrageous” is enough. He knows Americans are rightly shocked and appalled by the latest Colorado massacre and our innate impulse for vengeance is powerful. I wonder if it’s so potent that most readers don’t notice that Ahmari frames “humaneness” as a descending route.

What is the too-lenient and soft-on-crime critique supposed to criticize anyway? If Norwegian style leniency led to more violent crime it might be clear. But the correlation is closer to antithetical.

The US homicide rate is substantially higher than Norway’s rate.

Sohrab also apparently thinks that letting certain criminals back into civilization is self-evidently wrong. It’s hard to know why since he doesn’t attempt an argument. No one needs to feel overly compassionate for criminals to believe that serving a limited sentence and then becoming productive in society is better than merely draining taxpayers’ resources to suffer. After all, Norway’s “clinical” approach leads to a recidivism rater far lower than the US justice system’s.

If Sohrab doesn’t think reducing crime should be the objective of our justice system, what’s his alternative? He sneers at the reluctance of another reporter to celebrate judicial brutality. “Like many Europeans, [a German reporter] looked down at the U.S. justice system for its supposed violence, including the persistence of the death penalty here.” The “supposed violence” he’s referring to might be the frequency of prison rape – a subject that many Americans feel is a joke rather than a grotesque outrage. Historically, rape and other forms of torture were commonly used as judicial punishments – instruments such as the judas chair and the pear of anguish were specifically crafted to cause humiliation along with agony. That we allow barbarism to continue capriciously in our prisons rather than as a direct penalty is not a point of integrity.

On Ahmari’s Facebook wall post, he agrees with his friend that America has the best justice system in the world. Severe punishment for its own sake is the goal. It doesn’t seem to matter whether James Holmes or any other menace is psychologically sound or not – brain destroying isolation is encouraged.  My last blog post argued that free will is a myth and we shouldn’t get any ultimate personal credit for our successes – the corollary is that we shouldn’t subject humans to unnecessary misery for their offenses. Even if you’re not a determinist, punishment for “just deserts” isn’t moral. There is no cosmic scale to balance – you’re just causing suffering for no benefit. As Steven Pinker in his essential book on the history of violence writes, “institutionalized violence was once seen as indispensable to the functioning of a society, yet once it was abolished, the society managed to get along perfectly well without it.” Mass murderers should be severely sentenced because they are a danger to society. Contrary to what Sohrab might think, I’m happy to call Holmes’ and Breivik’s crimes “evil,” but causing them pain for its own sake is neither just nor “good.”

(photo by Alex Masi – Rehabilitation in a super max Norwegian prison)

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