Monday, August 24, 2009

Compassion fatigue

The media are having a wonderful time speculating about the recent release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. There's a good chance that the whole thing is a political stitch-up designed to secure lucrative business deals for British companies, although given the capricious nature of Muammar Gaddafi, it's almost certain that not releasing him would have been commercially disastrous for the UK, which left the SNP in a bit of a no-win situation. Low though my opinion of politicians is in general, I am prepared on this occasion to accept Kenny MacAskill's assertion that he was not advised by the UK government on the matter. Gordon Brown's Macavaty-esque disappearance suggests that Downing Street is more than happy for Holyrood to take all the flak from the US, whilst secretly delighted that they've avoided antagonising their new chum Libya. The politicking has rather overshadowed the main point, however.

Opinion seems sharply divided as to whether al-Megrahi should have been released or not. It's a difficult case to consider - there are many who think he was not guilty at all and should never have been locked up; others who think execution would have been too good for him. For my part, I don't think any of that matters in the consideration of early release on compassionate grounds. The facts are that the man was tried and found guilty of a crime, for which he was sentenced and jailed. He is in the advanced stages of prostate cancer and has a life expectancy of a few months. The question is should he have been left to die in jail and his body sent back to his family, or allowed to go home and die with them around him?

The BBC aired a very interesting programme a year or so ago, in which former Secretary of State for Defence Michael Portillo looked at the mechanics of death as meted out by the state. The various methods of execution - hanging, electrocution, lethal injection, gas chamber and so on - are all very ingenious, but none of them particularly humane. After much research and deliberation, Mr Portillo came up with anoxia as the best method of ridding yourself of unwanted criminals. Much the same as sticking a pipe from the exhaust of your car in through the window and switching on the engine,* this slowly lulls you to sleep and then unconsciousness with a feeling of great euphoria. Death comes shortly afterwards.

The main focus of the programme was the seeming barbarity of the other methods - people being slowly cooked to death by a malfunctioning electric chair, choking to death by inexpert hanging, feeling the full effects of the lethal injection and so on. But the most telling scene for me was at the end, when Mr Portillo made his recommendation to an American penal expert whose name eludes me. This fellow was horrified that convicted murderers and rapists should be put to sleep as painlessly as possible, or indeed given a natural high on the way out. For him, the more terrible the death the better. These men (in the main) should be made to suffer some small part of the terror they inflicted on their victims before they died. Their deaths were intentionally horrific.

This same philosophy seems to strike at the heart of the al-Megrahi case - the difference between the UK penal system and that in America. And it begs the question: what is prison for?
In the UK, despite its many shortcomings, the penal system is geared to an idea of rehabilitation. It doesn't work very well, mostly due to lack of funding and political will (there's not many votes to be won in spending more money on criminals, after all), but the principle remains that a man can be made to change his ways by a mixture of incarceration, discipline and education.

In America, it seems to me (and I'll admit to very little experience of this beyond fiction), prison is about vengeance first and foremost. If you can't live by society's rules, then you will be treated as sub-human, brutalised. The main, sometimes sole, purpose of prison is to
prevent the inmate from re-offending by removing them from society altogether. Mercy doesn't have a place in this system, nor compassion.

It's hardly surprising therefore that America is up in arms at the thought of al-Megrahi being released ever, let alone early. Even if he'd managed to live out his twenty-seven year tariff and was up for parole, there would have been howls of protest from across the Atlantic should it have been granted. And if he'd been tried and sentenced in America, he would most likely be dead already - or worse, left in that endless limbo of appeals on death row that seems so much crueller than actually executing somebody.

Assuming al-Megrahi is guilty as charged, that he is responsible in some part for the deaths of two hundred and seventy people, and that he has never shown any signs of remorse or contrition, does he therefore deserve any compassion now that he faces certain death in the very near future? Should he be allowed to go home and die with his family around him, when his victims perished in sudden, unimaginable terror, away from their loved ones and with no time to make peace with their maker? Put like that, it would seem obvious that the answer is no. He should rot in hell for eternity, he should be denied medication, be forced to lie in his own filth, be locked up in a cell with no natural light and no stimulus day or night.

But that's not how compassion works. It's not about al-Megrahi and what he did. It's about how a nation decides to treat the people in its care. It's easy to be compassionate to people who deserve it. Had al-Megrahi broken down and confessed, spilled the beans on all the others involved, asked for absolution of his sins and served his time with humility and good behaviour, then there would be far less soul-searching, but the question would be essentially the same. Do we want an eye for an eye, or will we turn the other cheek?

I long ago abandoned organised religion as an idiotic pursuit, but some of the principles my Christian upbringing taught me are, I think, worth following. It may seem a small thing in the great ongoing battle between the west and the disparate facets of Islam, but along with all the negative propaganda spouted about the UK, there is now one small positive light. That despite everything we believed to be true about Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, when we knew that he was dying, we sent him home to be with his family. It was the compassionate thing to do, and it was the civilised thing to do. Hopefully that won't be lost in the political fuckwittery that inevitably follows.

* this would have to be a pre-catalytic converter car, of course. Modern engines leave too much oxygen in their exhausts, and too little carbon monoxide, to kill. You just end up with a really bad headache and an empty fuel tank.

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Blogger John R said...

Charlie Stross said much the same thing, and I agree with both of you. It's our capacity (or, more to the point, Scotland's capacity since I'm not aware of a similar standard practice in the rest of the UK) for compassion that sets us, as a society, above those who advocate mass murder, torture or violent retribution. If we're to continue to claim to be the "good guys", we can't afford to descend to the level of others.

August 24, 2009 11:42 am  
Blogger highlandwriter said...

stitch-up or not, i cannot understand the folks on this side of the pond calling to boycott travel to scotland.

c'mon people, get real! i would never boycott scotland.


August 26, 2009 12:09 am  

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