Justice and mercy
Aug 24, 2009
by Dan Van Ness
The compassionate release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of participation in the bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, has generated a great deal of discussion. And well it might; 270 people died when the plane crashed (259 passengers and 11 residents of Lockerbie). Al-Megrahi was the only person convicted of the terrorist attack.
In another of today’s RJOB entries, Lisa Rea focuses on the difficulty for victims when the convicted individual persists in denying guilt and there appear to be reasons to give credence to that denial. Part of what victims need is answers, preferably from a repentant and honest offender.
I would like to consider a different issue: what this tells us about the nature of justice and mercy.
Justice requires that those who are responsible for committing a crime be held accountable for the act and the resulting harm. It also requires that when innocent people are charged with such acts they should be exonerated. As Lisa points out, at least some of the disagreement over al-Megrahi’s release among victim’s families stems from disagreement about whether he was in fact guilty. In that sense, the dispute is not whether mercy should trump justice, but whether justice was done in the first place.
But assume for purposes of argument that al-Megrahi was indeed guilty and therefore justly convicted and sentenced. What do we say to the victims’ families (and others) who ask why compassion should be shown to a man who himself showed no compassion and who never confessed or repented of his actions?
When a government administers criminal justice, it is judging the alleged acts of an accused individual: did those acts break the laws of the country? If a restorative perspective is included, the judgment extends to the harms that resulted and determines accountability for addressing the harm. In other words, justice tells us something about the accused. He is either guilty or not.
Mercy, on the other hand, tells us something about society. It is bestowed not because the offender deserves it but because it reflects societal values. In that sense, it is like forgiveness, granted because the victim chooses to do so and not because she is obligated to forgive. In an exchange on a previous RJOB entry, commenter John White discussed how his work with a victim-offender awareness program in prison had caused him to change his perspective on forgiveness:
I now believe that the victim's decision to forgive has nothing whatever to do with an offender's remorse. Of course, a genuinely remorseful and repentant offender may be easier to forgive. But there is a danger in this. The repentance may cause the victim to feel obliged to forgive before they are truly able to do so. But forgiveness is really for the one forgiving; to set them free from the power and control of their offender, and to release them from bitterness, anger, fear and the entire constellation of emotion and reaction that was begun at the time of victimisation.
In other words, because forgiveness is an undeserved gift, the victim has the sole power to extend or withhold it. The offender cannot compel it by being remorseful nor can he prevent it by failing to show remorse.
Similarly, mercy is extended not because of the desert of the offender (for then it would be justice), but because society – through its government – chooses to bestow it.
According to the LA Times, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, in announcing the decision to release al-Megrahi, “said it was necessary to uphold Scottish judicial values, which include a tradition of compassionate release for the terminally ill.”
What he was saying is that the act of terrorists with its devastating consequences would not be permitted to change Scottish values. By showing mercy, the Scottish government insists that terrorists will not be given the power to change the fundamental values of its country.