December 15, 2014

The value of cruelty

I used to be an advocate of the death penalty. The idea felt so satisfyingly righteous, in a way, casting down evildoers and giving them the full and definite measure of justice. This was a young person’s opinion, and I think it was very much colored by ideals and naivete, concepts of black and white.

Then I read this quote by John Adams, from The Portable John Adams:

It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished.

But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.

In some ways, what Adams is asking you here is – what do you value? Do you value punishing the guilty more than preserving the innocent? Because in any justice system, enacting whichever form of punishment, at some point you will come to a situation where there is a very high likelihood that you may punish an innocent person. Is it worth sacrificing a few innocents in order to ensure that the guilty are justly tormented?

Adams does not think so. There is not only the act itself of punishing the wrong person, but the idea that this deed creates a pall in the mind of the society willing to do so, because if innocence has no value then in some ways everyone is guilty, and everyone deserves what’s coming to them – whatever that may be.

This comes to mind, of course, because of this excerpt from this interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday:


I suspect that, should they have met, Dick Cheney and John Adams would have agreed on very little.

There has been a great deal of talk over the effectiveness of torture, and the definition of torture, and the responsibility of torture – but seething underneath all of this is the suggestion that these people deserved this treatment. They had it coming. They were monsters, and it was just and right for them to bear this cruelty.

This sentiment is totally disinterested in strategic value or intelligence assets. The act of cruelty in itself was justified, and should have been done.

But what if the people it was visited upon were not guilty? What if they were not our direct enemies? Those who advocate such measures seem strangely unaffected by this. The concerning suggestion here is that, by dint of being Muslim, or perhaps knowing and associating with the wrong sort of Muslims, they were guilty. This leads to the deeply discomfiting conclusion that, in some way, all Muslims are guilty. Perhaps all Muslims deserve to be tortured.

As Adams suggested above, prioritizing punishment so often leads to a wholesale devaluing of morality and human life. If innocence has no value, then everyone is guilty.

I remember when the scandal broke out about US marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters, one of my co-workers at the time was terribly upset. “We should be allowed to do this to them!” she said, furious. “We should be allowed to do worse things to them than that! They killed 3,000 people, we should be allowed to tear them to pieces!”

The question we must ask ourselves is – what is the value of such punishment? What is the value of suffering? What is the value of inflicting pain? In essence – what is gained? Are we or the world bettered by such acts? Do we suffer less for making the right people suffer more? And do we even care if the wrong people suffer?

Righteousness offers such a warm and comforting embrace. But the longer one bears it, the heavier it seems.