Does Punitive Justice Favor Good Over Evil?

A reflection on punitive versus restorative justice approaches, where real-life crimes and literary insights challenge our perceptions and call for a transformative path towards healing and fairness.

March 27, 2024 10:30 EDT

Dear FO° Reader, 

Crime, unfortunately, seems to be an unavoidable part of human nature. In 2016, a hate-filled Omar Mateen gunned down 50 people and wounded 53 more in an LGBT nightclub in Orlando. Today, we are witnessing tens of thousands of Gazans slain in what many are calling a campaign of ethnic cleansing or even genocide. But it’s not just the big incidents. Children even kill other children. And reckless businesses pollute in ways that harm entire populations. 

Once a crime is committed, we are at a loss on what to do. We cannot bring back the lives lost or fully repair the social bonds broken. Yet we are all convinced that we must do something. So, we punish. We flog or we crucify or, in the present day, we lock people away for years or decades. Yet how much is all this accomplishing? We must ask how effective our Western punitive justice systems are.

Is punishment capable of restoring social order after a crime has been committed? Is it capable of relieving the victims? 

Three books I have recently read confront the dilemma of justice. Is justice fair? 

Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity, by Carla del Ponte and Chuck Sudetic, relates the struggles of a special prosecutor doing her best to make international law a reality. Del Ponte fought criminals valiantly from gang-infested Sicily to post-war Rwanda and Yugoslavia. Yet she discovered that, even going by the book, progress was frustratingly out of reach.

Failures of Forgiveness: What We Get Wrong and How to Do Better, by Myisha Cherry, explores how the uses and even misuses of the concept and practices of forgiveness can help us at both a personal and a collective level. Practices of forgiveness also take different forms in different cultures. Her opening anecdote is telling. In the aftermath of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, some of the victims’ relatives forgave the shooter publicly while others who did not do so were exposed. Forgiveness had become an unspoken obligation, thus becoming a burden for the victims.

In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement, by John H. Heminway, relates the fascinating and troubling life of Anne Spoerry, a Swiss-French physician. Spoerry was an active and heroic member of the French Resistance until the Nazis captured her and sent her to the concentration camp. After the war, Spoerry served as a flying doctor in Kenya until she was in her seventies.

Yet Spoerry had to flee Europe because, during her imprisonment at Ravensbrück, she had done the unforgivable: She triaged people for gas chambers, and even administered lethal drugs to inmates. Some say she did so out of mercy. Others accuse her of murder and torture. What exactly happened and why may never be clarified; Spoerry herself has never spoken about those times. At trials in both Switzerland and Germany she was found not guilty. But the French Free Forces banned her and condemned her to exile from France for 25 years. 

These readings incited me to begin exploring the intersection of personal redemption, the pursuit of justice at a social and national level, and the question of the effectiveness of restorative versus punitive justice systems.

Punish war criminals and make justice for the victims

Madam Prosecutor tells the story of former Swiss Attorney General Carla del Ponte, appointed chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda in 1999. Though she possessed an unyielding personality, she grappled with the complications of international law, at the intersection of diplomacy and justice. Diplomats prefer nuance and compromise, but as a prosecutor, del Ponte uncompromisingly pursued both criminals and the truth. She ruffled more feathers than anyone might have expected when aggressively demanding support from the local authorities to provide evidence and witnesses for her trials.

Yet the cases largely did not conclude in the manner that would have been prescribed by Western legal norms. Rather, the Rwandans employed the practice of, gacaca, a traditional method of discussion of wrongs and deliberative conflict-settlement. This method succeeded in exposing many criminals and their abettors, bringing the truth to light and offering some sense of justice to the victims’ families. Yet the criminals did not face the full penalties which the law prescribed. They had slaughtered a million people. The full execution of justice would have taken decades and consigned more than half of the surviving male population to prison.

So, deliberation and compromise were able to achieve something that trial and imprisonment could not. But can we really just live and let live after so much tragedy?

Forgiveness is often misunderstood

In Failures of Forgiveness, philosopher Myisha Cherry challenges the conventional wisdom surrounding forgiveness. Cherry argues that the conventional views of forgiveness — letting go of negative emotions for healing — are misguided and can sometimes cause more harm than good. Cherry’s work encourages a shift from simple forgiveness to “radical repair,” promoting true healing and reconciliation without ignoring the roots of wrongdoing.

This suggests an approach of restorative justice that aims to heal and to make life possible again, not merely to punish. After all, what use is it to throw someone in jail where they will all too often sink deeper into criminality or find it impossible to reintegrate into society after serving the sentence?

We need to reflect on what we are really trying to accomplish when we wield the sword of justice.

Anne Spoerry and atonement

Someone who has made mistakes or even committed grave crimes is not for that reason worthless or incapable of doing great good.

In Full Flight tells, as its subtitle promises, a story of atonement. The life of Anne Spoerry is that of an individual who embarked on a path of personal transformation and restoration while at the same time refusing to be shackled by her past. She was an exceptional person, perhaps, and one who never sought fame. Instead, she did her best to save lives, relentlessly. 

WWII Concentration camp – Wikicommons

One shudders to imagine what horrors happened in Ravensbrück. If Spoerry did harm others, as she is accused, one struggles to understand the motives. Perhaps it was a matter of survival, but we may never know. As it is, the story has turned out to be more complicated than that.

Spoerry devoted decades of her life to saving lives of people living far away from cities in Kenya. 

Would it have been better if Spoerry had been locked up and denied the ability to practice medicine? 

Should states, like Rwanda, support international law even if they believe it endangers their internal balance of power?

At Fair Observer, we are agnostic about perspectives and are not here to enforce any one answer to questions like these. Yet we want you to ask them, to bring your own expertise and experience, and to help us give better answers together. We cannot do it alone.

Yours sincerely, 

Roberta Campani 
Communications and Outreach

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