Crime and Punishment

Trial by Fury

April 07, 2018

Unfortunately, since then, too many people have become intellectuals in the sense that beneath every phenomenon they see, or think they see, something very sinister. They do not really believe in the possibility of justice, that is to say the blindfolded lady with a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. Everything that happens—everything in the human world, that is—is an expression of power. If a burglar is convicted, this is merely the expression of the power relations in a bourgeois society that protects property rights but lets inequality and homelessness flourish. On this view, power is the only thing worth having, in fact the only thing anyone truly and genuinely seeks.

Increasingly, therefore (or so it seems to me), we live in a social environment in which we accuse one another of things against which there is no defense; everyone is guilty if accused.

Perhaps the most common such accusation (but far from the only one) is that of racism. Even to try to defend yourself against it is to demonstrate just how bad you are. The lady doth protest too much, methinks has become almost a juridical principle, at least in our own minds. An accusation is enough to deprive the person accused of the right to be heard, let alone exonerated. We, on the contrary, have the right to decide who is innocent and who is guilty, moreover not on the evidence in the individual case but according to our worldview.

I daresay most of those demonstrating against the verdict in Northern Ireland would be at the liberal end of the spectrum when it came to other types of crimes and criminals. Burglars, poor lambs, do not really know what they are doing, they are merely reacting to their impoverished or deprived childhoods, or to the unjust economic arrangements of society. They—the penological liberals—would be horrified at the suggestion that householders could have someone punished as a burglar just because they accused him of being a burglar. Except in this instance, they would probably be hostile to the very notion of punishment, which they would regard as primitive. However, they would make an exception for a case like this (and others like it) and would probably attend with glee a public castration.

We are never more than a veneer away from lynching. It is the purpose of the law (an achievement not to be taken for granted) to maintain that veneer. It may be thin, but it is all we have.


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