On Law, On writing, Other Stuff

For the sake of my own sanity

images[1]What is vengeance worth?

This whole Pistorius/Steenkamp tragedy has my stomach in knots. Horrific things happen daily around the world: crazy, disturbed people walk into gay clubs and shoot indiscriminately, religious groups kill over belief / land/power, another madman shoots a beautiful young British MP, planes are hijacked, people are murdered, raped.

But this one has my stomach in knots.

For in amongst this delightful world we inhabit, we wait in anticipation of how a South African court is going to punish their one fallen hero. A man who for one of only two reasons, either fear of an intruder or anger towards a supposed lover (whatever, it doesn’t matter anymore) caused infinite and indescribable pain to the parents of the daughter he killed. Killed brutally. The evidence has all been heard- there simply is no more- judgments were made and then overturned and he is now convicted of murder.

Only one person can decide what his fate must be: exactly how he should suffer the consequences, what sort of days he must endure ahead of him. There is no going back.

But still the media, oh the media have their say. In print by famous authors, prized journalists, award winning reporters who throw in their wisdom and sage sense, who deliver forth sensational, emotional, literary outbursts of well- constructed sentences of legal…. nothingness. Years of experience capturing the essence of life in words and photographs to sell print and pay the bills. Unlikely to have ventured into vaults of precedents and policies they have never dissected or come to know, they fill the voices of readers with vengeance. They spoil the world with haunting images of crimes too horrific to comprehend – all in the name of vengeance and venom. What else for? It is not the public who needs video footage to construct a sentence to fit the crime. It was not necessary to have made gruesome pictures public, neither was it necessary to suggest or sanction a humiliating hobbling around a courtroom of a pathetic paraplegic to instigate pathos.

In this I believe both to be unfortunate errors of judgment in the trial, both on the part of judge and   on the part of Pistorius’ advisor. For it is not the public who needs to see and decide.

Only the judge.

And still the media present an assumed authoritative view. What does the crime mean to humanity, what does it say about masculinity and gender- based violence? Marrying masculinity and vulnerability? Is that it? I’m confused, I confess. Is this the quintessential message which ought to be conveyed about how behavior should beget it’s just rewards.

It seems so different to me.

For there are no just rewards. No re-emergence of a beautiful, promising young life, nor the prospect of future lives without infinite pain, grief and suffering.

Only the fate of one to be punished. And this presupposes only two really simple questions, namely how and for what purpose?

Please. I profess no expertise in this either. I express only extreme disillusionment in the mentality of most who believe in more suffering. And so in my insanity, I scrambled in between some old insect infected papers, papers I hoard for no reason other than to re-enforce memory, and I came across this:

“Consider critically the following statement in the Freedom Charter: “Imprisonment …shall aim at re-education not vengeance”.

It was in 1989. It was a mini-thesis I had written which formed part of one of my final year law courses, The Prison in Law and Practice. It contained references to vengeance, retribution, rehabilitation and re-education, history and failings of the penal system. Not the most authoritative piece of writing on the criminal justice system though worthy of an okay mark.

But that’s hardly the point, silly.

The point is that part of my research stayed with me and still does. I read it again and wondered whether much had changed. Whether what I thought had changed, whether society had changed. This is not what I wish to do here either…Write another thesis.

But what I do want to say briefly are just two fleeting thoughts:

  1. Punishment in its aims and efficacy must surely be relative to the person being punished. And perhaps this is obvious to some but it seems to me that for a criminal who is repeat offender whose chances of rehabilitation are extraordinarily unlikely, given that the society in which he must be re-introduced post incarceration does not lend itself to a better existence, the punishment must differ from one who is extremely unlikely to commit a similar crime. Whose crime was hideous yes, but whose punishment must be construed relative to the life he has previously led and the repercussions already apparent.
  2. Where there is a chance of salvaging a broken soul, where there is a strong chance of someone’s punishment positively affecting and improving the lives of others rather than inflating prison numbers with an accompanying financial burden, where lengthy imprisonment will serve no purpose other than to exact vengeance, are we not, in the interests of simple humanity obliged to consider the former purpose? Do we not have a greater duty to start looking at ways of growing stronger children rather than breaking broken men?
  3. (And yes of course restricting access to dangerous weapons.)

So is it necessary, I wonder, to instigate further venom, further castigation by trying to combine clever concepts of masculinity and gender- based violence for readers, who want something to hang onto, any words at all, but especially from brilliant crime fiction writers about what they believe the fate of a real person should be, when that punishment can only properly be determined by someone well versed in the law?

Of course justice must be seen to be served. Of course. That’s the ideal.

Is anything ideal I wonder?

There is no satisfactory ending to this one I’m afraid. It’s just been on my mind.







2 thoughts on “For the sake of my own sanity”

  1. You’ve tackled a very difficult subject: Vengeance versus Justice – which? I agree that vengeance seldom, if ever, serves any purpose. On the other hand, clever Defence Attorneys often cloud the issue to be judged with clever, theatrical antics in the Courtroom – just thinking back to the O.J. Simpson trial, for instance. So, do victims and/or their families ever receive justice in our modern judicial systems? I think not.

    1. Thanks for your comments Maretha! It is a thorny issue indeed ! The ‘antics’ of lawyers (though diff in SA from USA as are based on diff legal systems) are often confusing for the public who view the whole issue from often purely emotive subjectivity which is completely understandable too.

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