The Need to Punish

Just a little while ago I finished watching the movie Narvik. Highly recommend. Five stars. It is a dramatization of the German attack on the Norwegian town of Narvik in 1940 – the Germans invading Norway primary to gain control of Narvik because, during winter, that was the port where a huge portion of Germany’s iron ore came from. Lose that port, lose the war: that was the point for the Germans. It is a Norwegian movie so it is in subtitles for the most part, but it is well done so that you hardly notice that you’re reading the dialogue.

While a war movie, it isn’t centered on war, as such. Certainly there are battle scenes but the story is really about what do you do? Who is right? Who is wrong? What is moral? What is immoral? Collaboration or resistance? Fight on when its hopeless or just quit? The Germans, naturally, are the bad guys – mostly because they really were. But the British are not portrayed very favorably either. Neither are the neutral Swedes. The French (who really did come to fight for Narvik) are given a dose of glory. As I said, definitely recommend. But aside from offering you a couple hours of interesting and moving entertainment, there was something that struck me in the movie.

There is this scene where Gunnar – a young, Norwegian soldier; he, his young wife and child are central elements of the story – finally gets really into the fight and is able to pay out the Germans in their own coin. He shoots two Germans manning a machine gun nest. As he’s turns to leave, he notices that one of them has started moving. He quickly goes over to the man and turns him over: he’s just a kid (like Gunnar) but he’s also no threat: he’s dying and the lad’s dying eyes plead with Gunnar, “help me!”. But all Gunnar does is shove him a bit and, as the kid dies, ask “why are you here?”. No answer is provided: and for Gunnar and his dead enemy, no answer is ever going to really be provided.

The scene bore in on me the crime that is war. Don’t get me wrong: if you’re fighting to defend yourself, you commit no crime – but to start a war is a crime. There is never a justification to start shooting, or set up a situation where the other side feels it must start shooting or die. That player in the movie dying at his post represents millions – and even though, in this case, it was a young German, we do feel the sadness; the loss. The pointless waste of a life. But as we really consider it, we must never forget that it was a crime – and the attacker from the youngest little soldier in the ranks to the top military and political leaders are guilty.

Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things. – Romans 2:1

Any 18 year old Fritz in the German army, if asked, would say that it would be wrong if a foreign army suddenly descended on his home town and started confiscating, ordering about, oppressing and such. And so, the Germans who landed at Narvik knew they weren’t supposed to do that. No citizen of Narvik or Norway had in any way offended any German in the least. You have no excuse. You may obtain forgiveness, but you have no excuse.

And that thought, in turn, brought me to think about our larger crisis, domestic and foreign. The way the world is really in bad shape. And it occurred to me this is because, after more than a century of incredible evil done by nations and ideologies, nobody was ever sufficiently punished for their transgressions. Justice must always be tempered by mercy, but it still must be justice. Because we must apply mercy, after WWII we wouldn’t line the Germans up and shove them into gas chambers…but hanging a few Nazi leaders hardly atoned for the crime. And this leaves aside the fact that nothing was done about the Soviets, who were only marginally less bad than the Germans.

It is said – and generally accepted – that after WWI the punishment of the Germans was too harsh. The reality is that it was too light. Remember: they attacked France, Belgium and Luxembourg without the slightest provocation. And this led to four years of miserable, slogging warfare where untold numbers of young men died when, with just an ounce of decency on the part of the Germans, they would have lived. All the Germans had to do to save the lives of millions was…not attack people who offered no offense in any way. Quite honestly, for a century after that, the Germans should have been de-jure shackled to plows to pay back those they attacked. And WWII was even worse…and all we did was hang a few Nazis and then let the Germans get rich building cars and then we sat there, slack jawed, as they complained about what we did during the war. And, remember: no excuse. Any German asked in 1939 would have answered “no” to the question “should Nation X attack Germany unprovoked?”. They knew what they were doing was wrong. And they gloried in it…and only rejected it when it was all over. Germans want to complain about Dresden? They should feel lucky that every city and town in Germany wasn’t razed to the ground.

And I do think that this unwillingness to punish on the larger scale has led to our unwillingness on the lower scale. We’re forever finding excuses. Letting the guilty off. Figuring out how we can turn a blind eye to it. Easier that way, don’t you know? To punish is to take responsibility…and to assert a standard that you, too, must he held to. It is almost as if by letting Nazis and Communists off we then gave ourselves permission to bomb mud huts in Vietnam and drone wedding parties in Yemen. That if we let the mugger and armed robber off in our streets, we can then excuse the politician taking bribes. That if we all smear a bit of sh** all over ourselves, none of us will notice we stink.

It is high time that we got ourselves cleaned up. That we start to punish the guilty. Yes, yes, yes: always tempered with mercy. But mercy is to reduce the punishment either in scope or duration…but there must be punishment. The guilty must feel at least some of the pain they inflicted. And nobody has an excuse – the dictator plotting war and the punk plotting robbery already know they shouldn’t – and they know they shouldn’t because they know they wouldn’t want themselves to be the victim of an unprovoked attack or a robbery. When we think of all those who have been victimized by war and crime over the past century because our failure to punish encouraged the next war or crime, then really no amount of harshness meted out to the guilty is excessive. If the Germans in 1939 had been shackled and working merely to feed themselves and pay back those they attacked, then there would have been no WWII. In Europe, 60 million people would not have died. Try to sell me that brutally humiliating the Germans for, say, 50 years after WWI would have been worse than WWII. And how many in our cities have been robbed, raped and murdered by people who had previously robbed, raped or murdered? You tell me that punishment doesn’t deter crime? Maybe – but I know what a guy breaking rocks in the hot sun for 10 years won’t do for 10 years: rob. That’s at least some people not robbed; and that makes the punishment of the robber just and merciful. And as merciful to the robber as to any potential future victims – by punishing, we are at least for a time preventing the miscreant from sinning, and that’s a good thing.

The Application of Mercy

In Humbolt Park, Chicago, last night a couple was dragged from their car and shot. The man is dead and the woman is injured. It is entirely irrelevant why this particular event happened. The punishment of the criminals, if it happens, will also be entirely pointless because they won’t be punished properly.

I got into a good natured argument yesterday and today on Twitter about the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. I took the position that the main American mistake – our mistake of all mistakes – was that we allowed the Confederate leadership to live after the war. Not only allowed them to live, but allowed them to prosper and resume their power in the South. This is why we got Jim Crow. It wasn’t imposed by poor white farmers, but by the Ruling Class. The Ex-Confederates that we let off formed the KKK and used the most horrific violence imaginable against black Southerners as well as any white Southerners who wanted to take a stab at living in peace and justice with the freed slaves. And make no mistake about it, there were plenty of white Southerners who were willing to live in peace – I’m not saying they were ready, in 1865, to intermarry (though some did, in spite of huge pressure against it), but they were willing to live and let live. That was all very deliberately and maliciously suppressed by the Klan, under the control of people who had been Confederate generals, governors and other officials.

We have had the sense that Grant’s policy of letting them up easy was the correct way to go and in a certain sense, this can’t be argued against. As the historian Will Durant pointed out, the greatest military captains of history have shown that clemency is a mighty engine of war. But when we think about some of those past captains, we see it wasn’t exactly like it was after our Civil War.

Caesar was famously magnanimous with the defeated Gauls. He treated the defeated so well that during the ensuing Roman Civil War the Gauls didn’t rise in revolt when they could have easily thrown off Roman rule. Its not like the Gauls didn’t have people who could fight. They did: Caesar had let quite a lot of them off to return to their homes. But they didn’t rise. Why not? Probably had something to do with Caesar having their main leader strangled in Rome after his defeat. In other words, Caesar was merciful, but he wasn’t stupid enough to leave a strong, intelligent and clearly brave enemy alive.

Another example of this sort of thing was what the Austrians under Prince Schwarzenberg did to the Hungarians after their revolt was crushed in the 1840’s. Once the Hungarians were down, the operatives of the Austrian Monarchy went to work hunting down the leaders of the Hungarian revolt and hanging them in large numbers. The Prince was urged to mercy by a friend who, like many in Austria and around the world, was horrified at the operation of vengeance. Schwarzenberg said that he quite agreed that mercy was necessary – but, first, they had to have some hangings. Did this make him a hypocrite? Not at all. Cruel? Nope. He was merely being wise and ultimately merciful. Another observer of the same events, the still young Bismarck still more than a decade away from fame, responded to a friend complaining about the repression in Hungary by asking why no tears were shed for all the people who had been made widows and orphans by the rebels? People were acting as if the rebels must certainly have been in the right and that their actions were immaculate. This, to Bismarck (and to any fair observer) was drivel. The Hungarians had their complaints about the Austrian Monarchy, but so did everyone – but the Hungarians had no particular justification for going into revolt…especially as for each Austrian act of repression against Hungarians, there had been Hungarian acts of repression against non-Magyars in Hungary. Very rare will there be the person who is totally in the right!

Now, how did this work out? Well, once the hangman’s noose was put away (and it was, fairly quickly), order and justice were restored and some years after it was all over, Gyula Andr├íssy – a Hungarian rebel who had been condemned to death in absentia and actually hung in effigy – was appointed Prime Minister of Hungary and Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Funny how things can work out? But it likely would not have worked out had the Austrians simply allowed the rebels to resume their position in the Hungarian Ruling Class as if nothing had happened. What we did in 1865 was allow the defeated enemy to resume his position. This got us a century of Jim Crow and, ultimately, played a huge role in the subordination of State governments to the Feds. Think about it – a modicum of justice in the South and there never would have been a Plessy vs Ferguson leading to a Brown vs Board of Education. No consent decrees. No gerrymandering minority-majority house districts. No “one man, one vote” destruction of the State Senates, which was a body blow to the very concept of Republican government. A few more hangings and we wouldn’t have had Jefferson Davis spinning his Lost Cause drivel while Forrest created the KKK to be a mafia-like muscle to re-impose Confederate rule in the South (and, yes, I realize that Forrest seems to have had a change of heart years later, but by then the damage was done – he’d have been far more useful to peace and justice dying at the end of a rope in 1865 than dying with lots of black friends in 1877).

Mercy must always triumph over Justice. But Justice must have her due. It can’t be otherwise. To get back to the start of this piece, the reason savages dragged two people out of a car and shot them is because we developed an entirely mistaken idea of what mercy is. We have it in our minds that Mercy means you skate. It can’t. If you do wrong, you must pay. A price is demanded for everything. Even God’s mercy had a price, after all. What will be done wrong about the people in Chicago is that they won’t be forced to the real atonement necessary. Even if they spend some time in jail, it still can’t possibly balance the books. For goodness sake, they dragged people out of their car and shot them! How is 20 years in jail going to make up for that? How will that deter the next barbarian? But before you go “death penalty” I’ll also ask: what will killing the shooters accomplish? To their fellow barbarians, they are still heroes who showed The Man. Dying from lethal injection won’t balance the books.

No, there has to be more – it isn’t enough to jail or kill: the perpetrators must be revealed for what they are: very stupid barbarians who will find out that Civilization can be one real son of a bitch when necessary. The reason our civilization used to hang, draw and quarter people wasn’t to be cruel. No, it had a very specific purpose: it was to show everyone, especially the barbarians, that Civilization wasn’t to be trifled with. That if you’ll live in peace with your neighbors, you’ll be fine: but if you won’t, then you’ll be made to curse your mother for giving you birth.

And it works, guys. The reason that we used to live in a world where even in big cities we didn’t have to lock our doors at night is because for centuries before, the most harsh punishments had been meted out to those who broke the rules. In the long run, it was a mercy to do it – because it eventually deterred people from being savages. Yes, provide mercy – and I mean in the sense of letting someone eventually off. But first, to put it bluntly, there must be a little hanging. We don’t have to do it to everyone who drags a person out of their car – just a few. The rest will get the message. And then we’ll have the crowning mercy of nobody being dragged from their cars and shot requiring us then to brutally punish the perpetrators. Because that is what you’re doing – you’re not trying to be cruel: you’re trying to get to a point where you don’t have to punish very much because there’s hardly anyone to punish. That is real Mercy.