16 Sep 2013

Violence, vengeance and punishment

"I am so full of hate that I'm scaring myself. Is there a word to describe wanting to kill people who are already dead? Because that's what's in my heart...I want to kill the killers, and I just can't believe that this would be a sin.
 
...I guess my question to You is whether or not You get to torture those evil bastards who did the killings, or if it's purely the devil's job and You subcontract it out. Is there any way I can help torture them from down here on earth? Just give me a sign and I'm in."
 
Douglas Coupland, "Hey Nostradamus!"
 
On hearing that the four men found guilty of raping and murdering a female student in Delhi last December have been sentenced to death, it's inevitable that some of our most uncharitable thoughts will seep in. It's hard not to think "GOOD." It's hard not to think "Yes, let them suffer like she did." It's hard not to think "Good riddance to bad rubbish." And many more, less printable, more sadistic thoughts. When the world is so infected with such savagery, I think it's a natural response to feel glad when fitting punishments are finally meted out to those who perpetrate acts that far too often go undetected and unaddressed.
 
I had similar thoughts when I heard that Ariel Castro, the man convicted of kidnapping, imprisoning and repeatedly raping three young women for over 10 years, had killed himself while in prison. Good riddance. There's another unsalveagable human being that society no longer has to deal with. No one's tax dollars have to be wasted keeping him alive. He's gone. Great. His victims might finally feel free.
 
But I know in my heart that these attitudes, while understandable, are far too simplistic to deal with the nuances of these cases, and of the surrounding society that allowed them to happen. Castro's death does not negate his victim's torment, and may even exacerbate it - Gina Dejesus, Michelle Knight and Amanda Berry have to live the rest of their lives with the memory of their decade-long ordeal. By comparison, Castro has got off easy. It also does not negate the fact that three women were let down so badly by a justice system which allowed them to disappear off the map for 10 years, and that theirs is by no means an isolated case. We are all well too aware of the names Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl. Whenever we hear about these cases, our media bandies around words like 'monster', 'horrific' and 'torment', as if to imply these stories are so unique and terrible that they're almost the stuff of fiction. We're meant to think that these things are so awful that they're almost unreal. But that's the twist - they are very real. And our societies keep letting them happen over, and over again.
 
And therein lies the uncomfortable truth of the Delhi case. For all the 'strong messages' that the death sentence on the four rapists are meant to send, it won't be strong enough. In a country where a rape is reported every 21 minutes, and thousands more attacks go unreported due to victim-blaming attitudes and social stigma, one landmark trial isn't going to change the landscape overnight. Yes, it's positive that as a result of the protests and outcry over India's shameful record on sexual violence, more victims are coming forward. Yes, it's positive that men are taking to the streets as well as women, and are condemning their fellow men who perpetrate, excuse and justify sexual violence (something that still needs to happen much, much more often in the West too). But killing the killers is, as several commentators have pointed out, a quick fix. A placatory gesture towards an understandably baying mob. Will this death sentence make the next rapist stop and consider his actions? I doubt it. What has to be stopped is the society that creates that rapist in the first place. And if we in the supposedly 'advanced' West - where we pay lip service to female autonomy and yet every adult woman can still tell you a story of being harassed, molested or assaulted in the street, at home or at work - can't stop creating men who think women need to be 'put in their place', then what hope for the developing world, where religion, patriarchy and poverty combine to keep women in a perpetual state of subordination and fear? 
 
I think a lot of it has to do with our inability to decide what 'punishment' should really mean. If it's about cold blooded vengeance, then the appropriate response would surely be to subject the rapists to hours of torture, penetrating their orifices with an iron bar and beating them until their innards are hanging out of their bodies. An eye for an eye, right? But in the name of 'civilisation', the proposed response is merely to hang them. So to what end? To make them suffer? One broken neck and presumably their suffering is over, unless you believe in an afterlife. To remove them from society? Prison serves that purpose, albeit at public expense. There can certainly be no argument that the death penalty is going to 'rehabilitate' the rapists, and as I've suggested above, I don't see it reforming any other miscreants out there either.
 
Regardless of any of these ethical debates, a lot of people - including the victim's family - remain very satisfied with the sentence, and still want the perpetrators dead. I can understand that. I can feel it myself, to an extent. But what I won't pretend is that killing is an answer to anything. Castro's suicide, the four rapists' hanging (if it does come to pass), mean very little in a society where thousands of other abusers of women are just waiting to take their place. Somewhere in India, a woman is being raped, beaten or murdered. So is a woman in Europe, in America, in Africa, anywhere on an atlas you'd care to stick a pin. What solace will the ridding of four rapists from this planet bring those women?

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