Monday, 16 August 2010

No strict dichotomy between compassion and retribution

The continuing debate on the Megrahi affair - sure to intensify this week in view of Friday's anniversary of his release - seems to assume that punishment in the criminal justice system comes down to a choice between retribution and vengeance (portrayed by many as the rationale behind the US approach) on the one hand, and mercy and compassion on the other (very often posited as the cornerstone of Scotland's system).

These crude alternatives may suit those with a political agenda of denigrating the USA while at the same time elevating Scotland to the status of some kind of world moral superpower, but the dichotomy is surely a false one. Of course, in recent days this kind of evaluation of the two country's justice systems has been most prominently proffered by Cardinal O'Brien, but a letter in today's Herald says:
I very much doubt if lay Catholics stand four-square behind the Cardinal on the Megrahi affair or the quality of Scottish justice. Most are lower-income citizens in communities sometimes scarred by violent crime. Opinion polls regularly show this section of the community feels the scales are tilted too much on behalf of the violent offender rather than his or her victims.
Indeed, and in particular the concept of punishment can extend to ideas of deterrence and even rehabilitation without encompassing superficial notions of retribution, and there's also justice for the victim to consider, which needn't be grounded in vengeance per se.

That's not to say that it was wrong to release Megrahi - although the suggested choice between compassion and retribution in his particular case seems confused by the widespread assumption that at best his conviction was unsafe, or at worst he's wholly innocent - but reductionist portrayals of complex principles of crime and justice emanating from crude political and national animosities do nothing to illuminate the debate.

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