Could we just forgive anyone?
Thought experiments about tough subjects in democracies, free societies
There are three separate aspects: personal forgiveness, the State’s forgiveness, and letting offenders go. Here they come in reverse order.
Letting Offenders Go Free
Dangerous criminals should be locked up until the danger is gone. If they are not curable, they can’t walk around freely. Three groups come to mind.
Those who seem to have no moral conscience. I don’t mean people who did horrific things and, after the facts, stubbornly say they were right doing so to ‘protect’ their good name and honor. I mean people who cannot tell right from wrong. First, some young children at times find it complicated to prioritize good over pleasant or unpleasant over evil. But we keep children away from firearms and alcohol and the steering wheel, and that should help. Then, there are those seemingly incapable of remorse, and who don’t see the point of trying to be good. Are psychopaths always a danger, or is it only a subgroup that makes the front page?
Most people who did wicked things did not do so because they don’t care. Most do it for a (limited) good reason. They don’t steal to make people poor; they just want the money. They don’t make others suffer because they are sadistic; they just want to feel powerful. They don’t rape because they hate; they couldn’t care less; no, they just want to feel gratification.
[This paragraph is not yet for people currently healing from sexual crimes and murder (attempts) on themselves or loved ones.] And then, there are people who did evil and therapists can’t help them. I think of violent pedo-sexuals. But most pedophiles do no harm. They control themselves. A very hard life, and we should openly honor them so they don’t need to hide! But those who cannot motivate themselves to respect children at every level should not roam the streets.
[This paragraph is not yet for people currently healing from assault in the family on themselves or loved ones. These home-bound terrorists do unspeakable harm.] Lastly, there seems no therapy yet for con artists and violent spouses. When any word can mean anything, how can therapy work? When their vicious early-childhood abuse makes the grownup perpetrator not open up, all they do can only be a show. They cannot be allowed to freely satisfy their fascination with vulnerable people and their drive to dominate, oppress, rob, and destroy people’s lives.
Preferably, all such dangerous people should be removed from society before they harm anyone. Therapists and ‘specialists’ who could advise they’re not a danger (anymore) should not be of the naïve type that loves everyone and cannot see evil in anyone, as so many people with empathy.
Yes, it’s no small measure to lock up people who’ve done nothing wrong yet. But why should anyone first pay with their life before something is done? As in medicine, prevention should trump cure.
The State’s Forgiveness
Jail time should not be punishment or revenge. It should not even mean that the perpetrator could have done better. If he could have, why didn’t he? It should be society’s message that someone should not have done what they did.
Since capital punishment does not deter, caters to anger and revenge, and inserts even more death and lack of respect for human life into the picture, among other good reasons to oppose it, that’s not an option.
But when is prison enough? Should perpetrators of the worst crimes (mass murder, mass sexual assault) never go free? And should lesser offenses be forgotten after a person did time, ‘paid their debt to society’?
I think not. I think it should depend on how much the person can contribute to prevention and healing from crimes like he committed.
Did you kill someone by driving under the influence of alcohol? You need to go viral about not throwing your own innocence away, friends stopping drunk people from driving, and why drink alcohol at all?
You callously threatened your spouse? You need to start educating the world about people who cannot be trusted as a marriage partner. Charm is not a proper substitute for warmth. Callousness cannot masquerade for confidence. (Can such people ever be trusted? Some obviously not.)
The State must persist in signaling that certain acts are beyond the pale. When a villain takes up this message forcefully and benefits society bigly, even from jail, there comes a time to think about releasing him. Not to forget what he did but to give him more power to profit society this way.
Victims, and even more so bystanders, need time to heal. A late, but not early, part of healing is forgiving the perpetrators. This will, first of all, benefit the person who was hurt. But this is harder to do when the perpetrator has not been dealt with or worse, is still a threat.
We (subconsciously) generate anger and a drive for revenge only to make it safe to share our pain and cry. When we cried for thousands of hours, trembled our fear away, laughed off our embarrassment, and told the story, time and again, that’s not enough if we’re still resentful and angry. These sentiments hurt just us. Blame G^d, if you must: ‘In the Afterlife, You’re not going to get away with this!’ But living well is the best revenge. We cannot ever forget. But when most pain has healed, to forgive is easy.
The mere fact that some advocate to immediately turn the other cheek (the most prevalent religion in the US that still glee in executing people) does not mean it’s rational, desirable, or advantageous to hate and kill.
Forgiveness is only for late-stage recovery if it doesn’t come naturally. But some mourners immediately understand anger is not the way. Look at funerals for victims of terrorism in Israel. Mourners often cry and feel a deep need to express gratitude for having been with the victim for so much time. They call for random acts of goodness to neutralize evil. But it’s fine if that’s not your initial response. Do what you need to do. But don’t withhold from yourself to complete the mourning. Forgive and live well.