Howard Jacobson: People want retribution, not rehabilitation

We no sooner let offenders out than they offend again. I propose a simple solution: keep them in
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The Independent Online

Is it my imagination or has everyone now been released from prison? I know it's Kenneth Clarke's declared intention to stop putting everybody in, but I must have missed the announcement that he has decided to let everybody out.

It's possible I overstate the case. Maybe it just feels as though every prison gate is swinging open because there's been so much talk of previous prisoner release – the dying but not yet dead Megrahi, for one – and the as it were imaginative release of Raoul Moat, whom we've been pardoning not from a mere custodial sentence (which he is in no condition to serve) but from eternal damnation.

I'm suffering compassion fatigue, anyway, however you explain it, which is surprising given that of late I haven't been feeling much compassion. I put it down to other people showing compassion on my behalf – not me personally, but me as citizen – and I would rather they didn't. Compassion can be overweening and rapacious. Those who pride themselves on possessing it will invade and flatten your moral garden until all that flourishes there is the weed forgiveness. I do not find the fragrance of forgiveness lovely? Depends where it grows. In a society forever feuding, yes. But where exoneration is the custom of the country, no. I think it belittles the forgiven – for even a criminal has the right to drink deep the consequences of his crime – and I consider it a perversion, akin to kissing lepers, on the part of the forgiver.

I alluded to eternal damnation a paragraph ago. Shame we no longer go in for it. It was never really ours, of course, to dispense, but there was a time when the prospect of eternal damnation was a necessary adjunct to egregious crime. But then egregious crime is something else we no longer go in for – the concept of it, I mean, the idea that some actions are so terrible that God himself cannot forgive them. So we go on getting the crimes – the brutality, the terror – we just refuse to feel them as egregious. Our minds have shrunk. Anything above a misdemeanour, an expression of unhappiness caused by social deprivation, psychological malfunction, Zionism or the Iraq war, will no longer fit. It isn't only the idea of evil our heads reject, we refuse all gradations of wickedness – rottenness of soul, malignant spite, call them what you will: any of those examples of indurated vindictiveness from which, once upon a time, we believed we had a right to be protected.

The trouble with prisons, Kenneth Clarke has been telling us, is that they make no difference; we no sooner let offenders out than they offend again. I propose a simple solution to that problem – keep them in. Where the original offence was serious, the slightest suggestion that they will repeat it should be sufficient to extend their stay. Until when? Doomsday, if necessary. Rehabilitation is a fine ideal, but it is secondary to our protection. The first justification of the prison wall is that it separates us from those who will harm us if they can. The second is that it enables society to honour the retribution we individually crave but cannot individually exact.

Retribution troubles modern sensibilities. Isn't it just a bigger word for revenge? The letters pages of our newspapers have been running hot on the subject of revenge this week, the occasion for it being the rights and wrongs of releasing Megrahi a year ago, when he was supposed to be at death's door. We didn't believe a word of that in this column a year ago, and we don't believe a word of it now. That he is alive today, Alex Salmond, Scotland's gullible (or cynical) First Minister, ascribes to a change of scene. He was at death's door in a Scottish prison because Scottish prisons are not cheering places, but now he is back home in sunny Libya he understandably feels a little better. Since a show of gratuitous compassion for a dying mass murderer was the reasoning, I don't now see the argument for not releasing any homicide looking peaky and for whom a change of scene would work similar wonders. But then I speak in anger. The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.

Of those who would throttle the raven's croaking, the most striking was a letter-writer to this paper, a sister of one of the Lockerbie victims, who with much dignity dismissed the relevance of Megrahi's health today or yesterday and wished him well. Those were her exact words. "I wish him well." I have puzzled my head over this letter all week. Why would she wish Megrahi well? Assuming him to be guilty of murdering 270 people he didn't know (and the letter-writer gives credence to the findings of the court set up to try him), why would anyone wish him well? I can see some might have theological objections to wishing him in hell, but "well"? The same "well" one wishes a friend, a person one loves, a saver of lives, a creator of beauty? Are there to be no distinctions? Is there no evil so great that well wishing is not the reward for it?

Behold Dante's New Inferno, where there is no underworld, no ascending circles of sinfulness, just a flattened plain of minor miscreants to whom we extend warm greetings.

In so far as such wishing well constitutes forgiveness, I wonder what right any of us – even a close relative – has to forgive on someone else's behalf. Who hurts me can be forgiven by me alone. Yes, violence is a crime against society too. Justice must be impersonal, administered by the courts, else it's one unending vendetta. But so long as the cry for retribution goes inadequately heeded, we will live in a bitter and unjust world.

Mercy droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven? A sweet sentiment. For Shakespeare at full imaginative bore we go to Macbeth, where, in consideration of the "deep damnation" of Duncan's murder, pity is figured "like a naked new-born babe, striding the blast", and "heaven's cherubim horsed/ Upon the sightless couriers of the air" are conceived with the power to "blow the horrid deed in every eye, That tears shall drown the wind".

This is pity for the done-to, not the doer, pity simultaneously vulnerable and armed, a great heavenly force of raging sorrow, acknowledging the enormity of human outrage and the holy duty we owe to fury. "Deep damnation", reader. Sometimes you need a religious vocabulary. Deep damnation. And where you have deep damnation you don't talk lightly of prisoner release, forgiveness, and wishing the murderer of 270 Duncans a comfortable retirement.

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