Recently, the release of Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi on humanitarian grounds has kicked up a fuss the world over. Here we have a man who was convicted of killing over 200 people in cold blood and we are just letting him walk free. Did he show mercy to the 200 people that he killed? And yes he might be dying of cancer and want to die at home with his family. But did he let those 200 people die with their family?
Let take a step back and look at the big picture here and ask ourselves why we have a criminal justice system at all. Society is based on the idea that certain behavior damages is so damaging to the healthy operation of communities , that it cannot be allowed to happen. Out of all the crimes,murder is probably seem by most communities at the worst crime that can be committed. Criminal justice has evolved to ensure that such behavior is discouraged as much as possible.
The most common sanction in Western Countries is either monetary fines or incarceration. These serve the goal of crime minimization in the following ways:
Prevention. This is probably the most compelling reason to imprison someone. Simply put, a person behind bars cannot damage to society because he is not longer part of it. A killer cannot kill; a thief cannot steal; a rapist cannot rape; and and an arsonist cannot start fires while held in custody.
So strong is this reason that we may choose to incarcerate even people innocent of crime for the simple expedience of preventing crime. Two examples of this are keeping dangerously insane individuals in protective custody and quarantining people who have dangerously infectious diseases. Simply put, the danger that these people pose to society means that societies right to safety override their right to freedom.
Rehabilitation. The hope here is that the experience of incarceration will ensure that the person never re-offends.We can take this a step further and use the time in prison to either indoctrinate good behavior.
This goal is recognized as a failure. Prisons turn petty criminals into hardened offenders simple because when in prison, all of one’s peers are criminals.
Deterrent We hope that most people will fear punishment enough to ensure that they do not offend in the first place. Virtually nobody wants to go to prison and people will therefore modify their behaviour accordingly.
The most potent deterrent is knowing that you will get caught. When you get a fine after leaving you car illegally parked for 5 minutes, you probably will not do it again in a hurry. The more immediate being caught is, the better. The problem though is that catching criminals can be really expensive.
The makes one often opt for thinking that one can just get away with making the punishment for severe. The more one fears the punishment, the less likely one is to take the chance of getting caught.
This works up to a point. The problem is that at some point the punishment becomes the worst thing in the world – after-which more severe becomes pointless. For people who have never been to prison,going to prison is the worst thing in the world. A year or ten will not matter either way.
Sometimes, the crime itself involves huge risk. Robbing a bank or even house-breaking could get one killed. Once people have made the leap to commit the crime, more severe punishment will not help.
So where does this leave us with al-Megrahi? Lets for the time being leave aside that the evidence that he committed the crime was rather sketchy. Given that fact that he a dying old man means that his chances of re-offending are minimal so there is not Preventative reason for keeping him behind bars. Rehabilitation is irrelevant.
This leave is with just the last reason – deterrent. Truth is that terrorist are motivated by idealogical reasons. Terrorist are also willing to give their lived to the cause. The thought of dying in jail is highly unlikely to prevent terrorism. In fact it was only that Libya bowed under international pressure after twenty years of sanctions that actually got al-Megrahi extradited in the first place.
In light of the above,there seems absolutely no reason at all why a dying terrorist cannot be released to die at home with his family and it seems like the Scottish devolved government did right in letting him go.
So why the outrage? Why the diplomatic ruckus? Because there is a final reason for criminal justice: Retribution. Retribution is base desire that people have to cause pain to those that caused pain to us. I will kill you because you killed my brother. Killing you will not bring my brother back nor will it serve society in any other way (assuming none of the three reasons listed above apply). All that I think it will do is give me the knowledge that he who caused me pain suffers pain.
There are other words for this: spite and malice. In liberal countries we neither torture criminals and very few liberal countries execute murderers, not because the do not deserve it (although it is a huge arrogance to presume what someone deserves), but simple because doing so will cause more harm to our souls than to the criminals in question.
So lets hope that we can rise above the ill will and become better people for not letting our base instincts get the better of us.