Sometimes people do unimaginable things to other people. When I hear of a horrific crime against an innocent child, my first reaction is sadness. The nightly news makes me cry routinely. My second reaction is anger. My sense of justice cries out for retribution on the criminal. Saddam Hussein provides a good example because his atrocities are already part of the public consciousness to some extent.
I can’t bring myself to repeat many of the things Saddam did, but he tortured thousands of people. He did things like rip teeth out with pliers and rape women in front of their husbands, and so on. When I internalize this, prison does not seem nearly bad enough of a punishment to satisfy my thirst for retribution. Not nearly bad enough.
But, when I ponder my desire for vengeance, I always end up concluding that it is an unrighteous desire. It may be necessary to lock criminals away, or even to kill them in some cases, but these things are justified based on our need to protect society, or to inspire reform in the criminal, or to create a deterrent to future crimes. When I cross the line from seeking one of these purposes to seeking retribution for its own sake, it seems that I lose my moral footing.
I have considered what it would take to satisfy my instinctive desire for retribution. For example, I have wondered if torture is a just punishment for the types of unspeakable violence carried out by Saddam on innocent men, women, and children. As I imagine and envision what it would really mean to torture him, I realize that I cannot condone torture for the sake of punitive justice, even for someone like Saddam Hussein. It simply strikes me as immoral to torture someone for the sake of punitive justice (i.e. it seems unjust).
I discover this problem, then, that the things I am willing to inflict on Saddam do not seem bad enough to satisfy my sense of justice, and yet, more severe punishments seem to go beyond justice. When I seek punishment for the sake of inflicting suffering, I begin to doubt my moral footing, yet, I find in my sense of justice the undeniable feeling that wicked people should suffer for the things they have done.
I believe this example illustrates why punitive justice is often portrayed as an unenlightened view of justice. We find within us a seemingly justified desire to inflict pain on the wicked, but we can find no appropriate way to fully satisfy this desire. The desire, we conclude, must be immoral, even though we may have first supposed it to be part of justice. And yet, punitive justice has the sanction of scripture and it seems to suggest that the person actually deserves something worse than I am comfortable inflicting. This is my dilemma.
One day it dawned on me that there is a type of punishment which is very terrible and which I am totally comfortable with:
Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire. (Mosiah 2:38)
But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; …Yea, and …the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God (Alma 36:12-15)
These scriptures provided the answer to what it is that can satisfy my sense of punitive justice. The impenitent will be made to understand, fully understand, what they have done. What could be more terrible for Saddam than to fully comprehend the pain and agony he has caused his victims, with a conscience striped of defense, and the full weight of responsibility crushing down on him? I believe this experience will be intensely terrible, even worse than the torture I considered before, yet I am perfectly at peace with this execution of justice. This is how I would torture Saddam Hussein.
The key difference between this type of punishment and, say, pulling Saddam’s fingernails out one by one, seems to be that it is specifically designed to inspire reform. It inspires reform in a way no earthly punishment could do. Truly understanding the badness of what we have done makes us want to change. It is not really punishment for punishment’s sake.
The nature of justice plays prominently in our understanding of the atonement, and I continue to believe that much of our confusion about the purpose of the atonement is rooted in various incorrect beliefs about what justice demands. Justice, in an eternal and ultimate sense, is simply the law of the harvest as explained in Alma 41 and D&C 88. Punitive justice was introduced to solve a practical problem while we are in this “time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time” in which eternal justice is temporarily suspended (Alma 42:4). Punitive justice works most perfectly as “remorse of conscience” for the purpose of making us aware of the ultimate consequences of our actions (Alma 42:16-18).
For a long time I couldn’t find a way to account for my sense of punitive justice. I was torn between feeling it was wrong and simultaneously feeling that it was indeed part of my innate sense of justice (which, if I can’t trust, then what can I?). Thinking about Saddam made me realize why it is so hard to make sense of punitive justice. In this life we lack the ability to inflict the kind of experience described in the scriptures above, so we are always left with the feeling that unrepentant criminals deserve something worse than what they are getting. Now I am able to square my sense of punitive justice with my commitment that justice never demands suffering for its own sake.
[Associated radio.blog song: Noisepie - The Anger Song]