Punishment, Revenge, Compassion and the Nature of Civilization

A little less than a week ago, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a Libyan man convicted of the Pan-Am Flight 103 bombing which killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland, was released from prison to return to Libya, under the authority of the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill.  Probably the most succinct summary of events is the  BBC’s timeline, but there’s been much ink spilled over this, so by all means ask The Google if you need more information.

As I say, much ink has been spilled, virtually all of it in outrage as far as I can tell.  Al-Megrahi is dying of final-stage terminal prostate cancer, yet there are deafening cries from all over the US and the UK that to have released a dying man who could harm no one now, so that he might die, one hopes a bit more comfortable, at home, surrounded by family, and so that his family might have the comfort of seeing him again — that to have done this is monstrous, horrible, an affront to justice and rightness and an insult to the families of al-Megrahi’s victims.

What I would like to know is, how does it help the families of the victims, or serve the cause of justice, to inflict unnecessary suffering on a helpless, terminally ill person?  Don’t demand revenge and claim it’s justice you want: the two are incompatible.  Indeed, revenge and civilization are incompatible.

Societies have the right to punish people by imprisonment and confiscation of assets, to the extent that such punishment helps to deter future crime and is not disproportionate to what the criminal has done, and to the extent that confiscated assets can help to compensate the criminal’s victims; and societies have the right to imprison people who commit crimes, so long again as the duration of imprisonment is not disproportionate to the damage done to society by the criminal, to protect society from further damage.  No reasonable person could suggest that any of these purposes is served by keeping a terminally ill man in prison, without access to adequate medical care, for the last, painful months of his life.

To refuse to release al-Megrahi would have been to repay barbarism with barbarism.  Secretary MacAskill clearly made the right choice.

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