Dr. Brian Stout responds to calls for the death penalty for child sexual offenders, and encourages us, as a society, to hold on our goodness in the face of such evil.
Editor’s note: This is a response to Mark Ellis’ piece, Death Penalty Now.
What was most jarring about Mark Ellis’s rant in favour of the death penalty was the reference to the Norwegian response to Anders Breivik;
“Over in Norway, one can imagine a Euro-decadent Ministry of Punitive Arts considering whether convicted child slaughterer Anders Breivik should be allowed to have cable television in his cell.
Here in America we’ve had it with the child killers”
Is the implication here that the Norwegians have not ‘had it’ with the murder of their children? Or that a debate about the humane treatment of prisoners is a luxurious decadence? Scandinavian countries have long been considered the exemplars of how to treat offenders with decency so when Norway put Breivik on trial there was considerable interest in whether his horrific actions would lead to a more punitive, reactionary criminal justice climate. When Prime Minster Stoltenberg said that Norway’s response would be ‘more openness, more democracy’ and the Norwegian criminal justice system followed this with a scrupulously fair trial, held in public, it was a sign of hope that enlightened and humane values could survive in the face of even the most horrific of mass killings.
The Utah child murder described by Ellis is equally horrific and every news bulletin seems to bring us comparable stories. One possible response is to react with the anger and threats of Ellis or even the real violence of the likes of Michael Parr and Nathan Mann, convicted in the UK this month of the murder and attempted disembowelment of Mitchell Harrison, a fellow prisoner and convicted child molester. If, however, we are to call ourselves ‘good’ our task is to find a different way and to develop and promote criminal justice values and responses that are robust and resilient enough to withstand the challenges of even the most appalling of actions. In his response to Breivig, author Michael Morpurgo drew on the Norwegian legend of Beowolf to say:
“These ancient folk tales have great wisdom for us today. They can remind us that even the most prosperous and openhearted people, living in a country where respect for human rights is a given, where all seems so well, are vulnerable to evil.
We cannot protect ourselves entirely. But we can be vigilant, particularly on behalf of our children. We can better prepare them. Let us not kid them. The monsters are out there, and they are not like Shrek, they are like Grendel. Each of us must face the monster down.”
Supporters of the Rule of Law know that it applies as much, if not more so, to those charged with the most serious of offences as to those charged with minor offences. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all people but rights discourse is at its sharpest when discussing those who are violent, dangerous or otherwise unwelcome. Restorative justice is too often equated simply with the need for minor offenders to offer apologies to their victims when it also has something profound to say about how society should respond inclusively to perpetrators of all offences, with a focus on justice and the needs of the victims. We can acknowledge, with Morpurgo, that there are monsters out there but we must strive to hold on to our goodness and our humanity in the face of their evil actions.
Dr Brian Stout is Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Western Sydney. He has previously worked in criminal justice education in the UK and South Africa and as a probation officer in Northern Ireland.
Image of Road of Trolls, Norway, courtesy of Shutterstock