Sunday, 23 July 2017


‘My object all sublime I shall achieve in time – to let the punishment fit the crime’ sings Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. Golden words. To make the punishment fit the crime. A task for society and the law. So, what’s the fitting punishment for acid attacks? In which victims suffer atrocious, continuing pain, their faces disfigured or scarred for good? Or blinded? With ‘life changing results’, as the ghastly euphemism goes?

Horrid acid attacks – also called ‘face melters’ - are growing in London, the police say. 455 cases last year. More ‘fashionable’ this year. A pregnant woman even had acid hurled over her swollen stomach. Useless Home Secretary Amber Rudd (a former parishioner, groan…) calls for ‘the full force of the law’ to be imposed on the attackers. But what when the law is an ass?

Some argue punishment is a primitive, obsolete category, akin to revenge. To be replaced by treatment, as you would do with a sick person. Behaviourist psychologists incline to that. Against them, Emmanuel Kant points out that punishment is a fundamental human entitlement. Distinguishing human beings from beasts. Punishment rests not on revenge but on retribution. A just, proportionate ‘giving back’. The offence deserves a right retribution, that’s it. When you punish a wrongdoer you recognise his status as an end in himself, not merely as a means to some social goal, as you’d do with a dog or a horse. Paradoxically, for Kant punishment is a fundamental human right – though not one many criminals would be eager to claim, I guess.

There are three main theories of punishment. Retribution, reform and deterrence. Consider retribution. It demands that the punishment to be justified should fit the crime, as the Mikado sings. Now, a medieval punishment was being hung, drawn and quartered. The executioner would cut down the culprit still alive, castrate him, rip open his belly, pull out his intestines and burn them, the man still conscious. (Women were exempt.) Then the heart would be taken out, the criminal beheaded and the corpse hacked into four pieces. Such gory punishment would hardly fit the crime – unless of course the culprit had done the same on an innocent person. It would be disproportionate. But what about arson? Would burning an arsonist not fit his crime? Most people would baulk at it but the logic seems sound. Unless there were metaphysical objections. Thus in Sharia’ the burning of a human body is forbidden. It is the measure of ISIS’ barbarism that they burnt alive a Jordanian pilot fallen
into their savage hands.

Some authorities suggest acid attackers should rate a life sentence. Stuff and piffle. Usual English hypocrisy. A life sentence in the UK doesn’t mean what it says. People are often released after some years. Likewise, prison sentences never mean what they say. Nor is life in prison these liberal days necessarily that hard, compared with the pain acid throwers have inflicted. Meanwhile the scarred victims have no release. They undergo real ‘life sentences’. Of physical and mental pain, endless surgery and damaged relationships. How can a jail punishment fit the crime?

On the basis of his rational philosophy Kant, a thinker of the European Enlightenment, supported the death penalty. ‘Whoever has committed murder must die’. But would the death penalty be proportionate retribution to the acid attackers? Only if the example of Imperial China were to obtain. Then the type of death was graded according to the gravity of the murder. Slow poisoners, for example, suffered a slow death. So did the perpetrators of cruel, sadistic crimes. Death should not be quick release, that would not be just. The Mikado might have rejoiced that more serious punishments really fit wicked crimes.

The word ‘punishment’ is derived from the Latin word ‘poena’. Pain, suffering. But how does a prison term compare to the pain of acid being thrown into your face? Can you even imagine it? One during a hols I banged my face unto a glass door. I only suffer a small cut but I remember the sudden shock, the bleeding, the upset, the pain. That of course was fiddlesticks. Can you conceive the impact of an acid attack? The aftermath? The consequences? What it really entails? Can you?

Some years in Iran ago a court sentenced an acid attacker who had disfigured and blinded a young woman to have acid poured over his face. A fair example of a punishment fitting the crime. Predictable Western NGOs protested and campaigned for the sentence to be quashed. They had their way. Meanwhile the victim kept her lifelong scars. Was that justice?

Sharia’ penalties naturally work in some Islamic countries because they reflect public opinion. (In Saudi Arabia shopkeepers can keep their shops unlocked, they say, as thieves know the punishment.) It would be different in the West, some contend. Well, take the death penalty. If there was a referendum, are you so sure a majority would not vote for it? Guess that is why the cowardly Westminster Parliament will not discuss it. Nor indeed the ignoble EU Parliament. The scoundrels know all too well what most people feel in their bones: that the punishment at the moment does NOT fit the crime.

But what about redemption? As a Christian, should not the priest prioritise that? Above punishment? Indeed. Redemption – after judgment. By the Supreme Judge. He alone holds the scales. The Lord will repay.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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