On crime & punishment & wrath

Anger is not “useless.” Were it so, it could be ignored. It does not like to be ignored, however, so that often we must deal with it. Often, too, it is quite justified. This is especially so in a conflict where anger is being used tactically. The general coolly does things to make his opponent angry, in hope of provoking a foolish response. For it is true, even for the blind, that “anger makes one blind” — makes one awkward, and collision-prone. In warfare, there are other methods for driving an opposing general spare, but like frustration, they resemble it. In all events the target is wise to keep a cool head: and an eye on the puck, as we say in hockey.

But like so many other vices, anger is human. I was impressed once in reading a summary or transcript of a conference where Joseph Ratzinger (later pope) dealt with the intemperate words of a colleague, directed, deviously, at him. A soft word turneth away anger, according to Proverbs, and Ratzinger reviewed his colleague’s argument in the most charitable light, improving it for him along the way. Rather than ignore the intemperate expression, Ratzinger called it “a very human response,” sweetly conveying fellowship to a man who might now be feeling in need of forgiveness.

It is better to put out fires than to start them, unless one is a potter or a cook.

Christ, and Aristotle, are I think in agreement, that anger should not always be suppressed. But even when it is not suppressed, it must be regulated. It communicates that a significant wrong has been done, when soft words would fail. Like a good bombing, it should be carefully aimed, against the risk of unintended casualties. If it can’t be, one must hesitate to drop the bomb.

Having been born a hothead, like my father, I watched carefully as he wrestled with his condition. He tried to deflect his (almost invariably justified) anger in harmless ways. I noticed his quick recoveries. And as he grew older, and older, he became ever more benign, until it did not seem he had a temper. He was himself of the opinion that benignity beats malignity every time; that it is better to suffer, than to inflict an injustice; that punishment should be administered calmly.

Unfortunately, this is beyond the imagination or intelligence of today’s gnostic public educators, who are incapable of distinguishing punishment from rage. To them, the parent who disciplines the child is always in the wrong. This is why they can approve only those parents most likely to rear juvenile delinquents; and why they threaten to seize children from good homes.

But punishment is a means to instil self-regulation, or should be so at rising levels of sin. It cannot take away the wrongdoer’s unworthy desires: only Christ can do that, if the subject will let Him. It can, however, teach him to control his impulses, in order to avoid the consequences of them. Of course, some cannot be taught, in which case it may be best to despatch them to the highest Court, where justice is infallible.

The need, in some circumstances, for e.g. capital punishment, is lost on people who can conceive the act only as emotional retribution. Whereas, a good public hangman will be tranquil as a good family butcher. His demeanour, with the creature soon to die, will be kind and reassuring. (Lord protect us from executioners whose craft skills are skewed by impure emotion.) For that matter, all administrators of punishment should be benign by disposition, as, by analogy, doctors and nurses. They must not let themselves become “emotionally involved.” This can only lead to botches.

(Note that I advocate capital punishment only for those found guilty of capital crimes; not exclusively for the innocent, as the liberals do by abortion and “euthanasia.”)

And let the principle not be confined to nurses and doctors and public hangmen. The judge who rants at the prisoner, upon his conviction — this is becoming a commonplace in our courts — should never have been allowed to practise law. He has exposed himself by taking personal retribution.

Instead, justice must be served, tempered by mercy where mercy may serve justice, but not where it can only compound the wrong. A certain distancing is required, for justice does not belong to us, and we can only aspire to it. The virtue of justice requires that we acknowledge our personal interests (as we can do by the habit of frequent confession), recusing ourselves when potential conflict is espied. For justice must be, and should be seen to be, impartial.

Alas, anger is contagious, from our courts, as from our politics. It is a fault of mass or mob democracy, such as we have today in all the Western jurisdictions, that it depends upon the mobilization of anger, through media of disinformation.

The just statesman works towards the reconciliation of rival factions, by articulating a higher common good. He looks beyond lobbies to those who can provide, impartially, relevant missing information. He would rather do nothing, than do something wrong, and does not act in the absence of necessity.

Yet to get himself elected the contemporary politician must cultivate the wrath of one party against another. He must likewise present an agenda for “change.” To keep himself elected he must continue to divide and conquer. He must sabotage any opponent’s attempts to assuage. He must, regardless of moral cost, advance himself, in an environment where the old Christian constraints are going, if not gone. His wickedness, though he tries to conceal it in self-serving rhetoric, will necessarily twist all his legislation. He must please his supporters by doing gratuitous harm to any class of people they despise (such as, these days, faithful Christians). He rewrites law to curl an angry whip against those impeding “progress.”

Whereas, a true leader would check the intemperance of his followers; seek, consistently, a chance to reconcile; and likewise, promise to preserve the common heritage. He will intend, as we read in most Westminster-inspired constitutions, not the victory of a cause, but “peace, order, and good government.”

Which is to say, he will be unelectable.