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September 6th, 2016

Staring Into It

Some days I  read something in the  news and it angers me  or depresses me  but my  vision of the human status withstands it and I put it somewhere it belongs, filed away  in some sort of hierarchy of categories of bad things which are outweighed by the good and beautiful things, and I  carry on. But some days, like today, I read something that so profoundly disturbs and depresses me that I just can’t. I won’t say which story it was but it really did me in. I really don’t like staring into that Pit. I really don’t like losing my sense of the human status. But this afternoon I did.

So a someone or someones did something truly evil, and against the advice of some inner voice telling me to beware I read the entire account. And it leaves me without any inner resources. I just can’t come to terms with it. I can’t find some place to put it where it makes any sense in the grand scheme of things. I can’t help imagining myself  seeing these events unfolding, over and over again in my mind’s eye, and being shocked and horrified over and over and over. Wishing, imagining, I could have done something to prevent it. Knowing, logically and rationally there is nothing to be done for it. Oh yes, we can bring the perpetrator(s) to justice…sort of. Guilt can be pronounced, verdicts read, sentences handed down. But what of it? How do you punish  crime that is so utterly beyond the pale  that no amount of retribution can ever adequately punish the guilty? Death sentence? Maybe if you believe in hell. I don’t. As far as I can tell, death removes the possibility of punishment entirely. Oh you can argue that at least the dead won’t reoffend. Yes, but they feel no pain either. It’s the living that feel it. And will, always. Life in a torture chamber? Leave aside that torture dehumanizes  both the victim and the torturer together, reason enough to turn  away from it, the fact is you just can’t do that to a flesh and blood human being for very long  without the human eventually succumbing to madness or death, and so  release from punishment happens anyway.  The bitter fact is the guilty go free eventually, the living never.  

But even if it were not so, what would a perfectly tailored punishment for such crimes really accomplish? Really? The dead do not return to us. Their last moments will always be what they were. None of it can be erased. Punishment is irrelevant. There is only prevention, and even that is hard to come by. Jail yes, but is that ever a sure thing? Parole, forgiveness, rehabilitation…some people will always be a danger, and some crimes telegraph that fact with certainty.  And yet they can and often do go free, to kill again. Death penalty would surely prevent at least that much, but an institutionalized death penalty is bound to catch an innocent in its wake, and then it commits exactly the crime against humanity it stands to avenge. Then what? And if torture degrades the human soul, what of institutionalizing deliberate killing. George Will, whose conscience I have little regard for, wrote  once that while some people see a death penalty as addressing the deepening  coarseness of human behavior, others see it as encouraging it. So it turns out that even punishment can turn on us, dig us deeper into the Pit the initial crime threw  us into.  

The despairing truth is some crimes against humanity can never be adequately punished. The darker dismal truth is they can’t even be prevented always. I heard it said once, during a retelling of crimes of the Holocaust, that evil sometimes gets its turn at bat, and hits a good one.  And you can’t stop it from happening.  You come to realize that evil leaves scars in the world that just don’t heal. And then you find yourself wondering if all the good humanity is capable of actually really does  outweigh the bad. You find yourself tarrying with misanthropy. Surprising considering the work I do, the thing I participate in every working day. I’m on the long walk into old age now, and  that is not what I want to become. But age has its way with you. It’s not the lines in my face that worry me, so much as the lines in my heart.

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