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Mercy and the Minotaur.
August 29, 2009 12:22 PM   Subscribe

"The subjects vary... but there is an ideological approach in America that is distinguished by one common characteristic: words and deeds utterly lacking in the quality of mercy," by Charles Stross. Or, in other words, is using a minotaur to gore detainees a form of torture?
posted by geos (88 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Even if Al Megrahi is a mass-murderer...

That's where he loses me. I hear those saying the conviction may have been faulty. But saying he should be released either way? Sending a murderer of 270 innocent people home is not my idea of "mercy".

If somone wants to accuse me of being "mediaeval, and barbaric" because of that; that's their perogitive, but I think that's insane.
posted by spaltavian at 12:35 PM on August 29, 2009


The quality of mercy is not strnen.
posted by klangklangston at 12:37 PM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


spaltavian, he WAS terminally ill.
posted by kldickson at 12:41 PM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


It does feel like modern Americans are more devoid of this quality that previous ones. For example, you see how infrequently the insanity plea is used in criminal defense trials lately. Part of this is concern that the defendants might be faking, but I've heard tons of people argue, in total sincerity, that actual insanity shouldn't absolve those 'responsible' nor prevent us from punishing them. It's the same story with severe retardation, young children who commit crimes, and such.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:42 PM on August 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


Sending a murderer of 270 innocent people home is not my idea of "mercy".

You may not agree that mercy was appropriate in this case, but that doesn't make it not mercy.
posted by jb at 12:42 PM on August 29, 2009 [31 favorites]


This reminds me of this recent AskMe.
posted by limeonaire at 12:51 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


If Dick Cheney were to serve time for mass-murder (say, for the deaths of detainees under his policies), how would we feel about 'compassionate release' and 'mercy'?
posted by grounded at 12:52 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


the article is about mercy, not justice. The first should be extended to ANYONE in a civilized society. The second isn't actually on the table here -- regardless of whether his release is 'just' or not, it's the public spectacle that Obama and Gordon Brown are trying to manage. Short of actually exercising political power, the whole debate over 'justice' and 'mercy' seems a little specious.

As far as I know, there was no direct effort to influence the Scottish government decision here (correct me if I'm wrong?). If there had been, it would be a very different ballgame.
posted by puckish at 12:52 PM on August 29, 2009


kldickson: spaltavian, he WAS terminally ill.

At no point did I claim he wasn't.

jb: Sending a murderer of 270 innocent people home is not my idea of "mercy".

You may not agree that mercy was appropriate in this case, but that doesn't make it not mercy.


Well, it wasn't mercy if there were trade or business motivations behind it; but that's immaterial. I think you take my point, pedantry aside.
posted by spaltavian at 12:52 PM on August 29, 2009


This is perhaps the worst way to introduce this discussion, because Al Megrahi is incredibly unsympathetic, and the conviction is questionable.

However, in my opinion, (which, let me point out, has no bearing on the Scottish legal system and is therefore another example of the imperial perogative that I'm forevering exercising) if he actually committed the crime he should spend the rest of his life in a deep dark hole with nothing to comfort him. Killing 270 people is a fucked up thing to do. And he didn't destroy just those 270 lives: he destroyed another few thousand of people who loved and/or depended on the dead.

So do I lack mercy? Yes, for mass murderers, I do.
posted by TypographicalError at 12:58 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fine, spaltavian, then I'll be the first to accuse you of being medieval and barbaric.

If someone's terminally ill and is probably not going to commit a crime again, they should be let go and allowed to die in peace. It is a basic human dignity. Don't descend to the level of the criminals.

And yes, letting Dick Cheney die at home if he was terminally ill would be the right thing to do if the government does the right thing and convicts him of war crimes and lets him rot in jail for the rest of his life otherwise.
posted by kldickson at 1:00 PM on August 29, 2009 [8 favorites]


I don't know where this guy gets his ideas from. Doesn't he see that releasing even terminally-ill minotaurs from their labyrinths isn't mercy, it's just plain stupidity.
posted by TBAcceptor at 1:07 PM on August 29, 2009


Don't descend to the level of the criminals.

The "level of criminals" in this case is blowing 259 people out of the sky and landing the debris on 11 other people. That's barbarous. Life in prison without parole is not descending to barbarity, but how we condemn it, and how we say "don't do this".
posted by spaltavian at 1:08 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


spaltavian, he WAS IS terminally ill. And he possibly could have expected better end-of-life treatment in a British prison than as a 'free man' in Libya. (Although the way Qadaffi embraced him he'll likely get better than your average Libyan) Still, the action saved the NHS some big bucks.

Stross was wrong on one point: Prison rape is not "endemic and tolerated" here, it's an accepted and expected part of punishment in the U.S., as well as a generally approved way to vicariously satisfy your sado-sexual urges (and considered totally NOT gay).

No, he's wrong about one more thing. America's sadism is not a cancer. It's a Pre-Existing condition (we just recently exited a period when it was more successfully papered over by 'Political Correctness', now universally considered a dirty word because it suggests civility). But we have been this bad for all of my life (54 years) and have been more-or-less ever since the Puritans came here to practice their religious-based sadism.
posted by wendell at 1:11 PM on August 29, 2009 [8 favorites]


Nobody ever "deserves" mercy. If you get what you deserve, that is justice. Mercy is the suspension of a just and deserving punishment to the appropriate party. It is not, as the Bard said, strained. It acknowledges guilt and wrong-doing and relents in spite of it; it's a little extra gravy on an unpleasant dish.

If you are not merciful, any hand staying the headsman's axe strikes you in its rush to grasp the descending shaft. Either someone receives the punishment they earned, or they were not guilty in the first place — to put the two together aggrieves you. For the merciful, a special plea to circumstances, to humanity or family, these will suffice, or for others, simply having grown weary with fines, prison terms, or executions and the violence, however ritualized and condoned by society, is enough.

That said, were the suspension become automatic, formulaic, decided by a pre-ordained set of rules, that is not mercy, just a change in the standards of punishment. Mercy is, most importantly, optional and discretional.
posted by adipocere at 1:13 PM on August 29, 2009 [7 favorites]


"If someone's terminally ill and is probably not going to commit a crime again..."

How likely is it that he could now contribute to any terror plots currently in the works? (Serious question)
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:13 PM on August 29, 2009


how we say "don't do this"

Indeed- I was uhm-ing and ah-ing, but the prospect of a long gaol spell has dissuaded me from actioning my fanatical murderous plots. The system works!
posted by robself at 1:14 PM on August 29, 2009


Mitrovarr: There's an observation in recent decades that punishment, at least in highly publicized cases, seems to be less about justice and more about trying to make the victims feel better. This is kind of pointless, of course— no amount of cruelty or revenge will bring back the people he killed or make their deaths seem worthwhile.

Nobody really seems to agree on why we lock people up anyway. Is it for deterrence? Punishment? Rehabilitation? Revenge? To provide closure to the victims? To make the criminal repay their debt to society? To prevent repeat offenses? All of those? Those are all really different things. Without knowing why we're doing what we're doing, it's really hard to talk or think about what the right way to do it is.
posted by hattifattener at 1:21 PM on August 29, 2009 [8 favorites]


Hmmm.... whether or not I agree with him -- and I do on some points -- OPED + Onion article == GAME OVER, TRY AGAIN.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:23 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love our American sense of exceptionalism when it's applied to the Rule of Law.

We prosecuted and executed Japanese soldiers as war criminals because they employed waterboarding. But now it's defended by OUR self-labeled patriots as necessary "enhanced interrogation practices" that are completely justified when dealing with tough customers.

We let the guy that led the My Lai massacre of civilians out of prison after only a couple of years, where now he's making the book and lecture circuit and getting standing ovations from veterans for finally admitting "mistakes were made", but we bitch about letting a terminally ill terrorist go die at home.

It's this kind of shit that...well, screw it.
posted by darkstar at 1:28 PM on August 29, 2009 [23 favorites]


So do I lack mercy? Yes, for mass murderers, I do.

No, you lack all mercy. As adipocere points out, if you deserve it it isn't mercy, it's justice. Mercy is, by definition, given to the undeserving. That's why it's mercy.
posted by Justinian at 1:31 PM on August 29, 2009 [24 favorites]


darkstar: We let the guy that led the My Lai massacre of civilians out of prison after only a couple of years, where now he's making the book and lecture circuit and getting standing ovations from veterans for finally admitting "mistakes were made", but we bitch about letting a terminally ill terrorist go die at home.

Who's "we"? I think they both should be in jail.


Justinian: So do I lack mercy? Yes, for mass murderers, I do.

No, you lack all mercy. As adipocere points out, if you deserve it it isn't mercy, it's justice. Mercy is, by definition, given to the undeserving.


Does not follow. He could be fine with mercy for any other "undeserving" person, but not for mass murderers.
posted by spaltavian at 1:36 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]



We are in fact a pretty cruel society, and he's right that there's a significant proportion of the US population who hate the poor, though many of the people who really despise the poor are in fact other poor people. There's a willingness to be cruel among lower middle class people toward poor people that I've never seen anywhere else, true, heartless, 'let their irresponsibly-begotten babies die if they can't afford to feed them' kind of thinking. Stuff that kind of takes my breath away, and that never ceases to surprise me. I don't know if it's got religious underpinnings, as he suggests, or if it's an outgrowth of being a society that values high consumption above almost anything or if it's something else.

The other thing is, as animals, not just our society, we like hating people. It's intoxicating. People get the idea that we're not the same all the way through, but we really are, we're the same bunch of people that watched public hangings for a few centuries, had people put in stocks in the public square to mock. If modern executions were broadcast live, the entire country would watch--forget about the delights of people bowing and scraping and humiliating themselves on reality shows, those are just substitutes for real oblivion.

And then on top of that, add that the notion of mercy has somehow become socially equated with being weak, as if it's not enough to put your enemy in jail, you need him to renounce his homeland, his family, his religion, and then what the hell, kill him anyway.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:42 PM on August 29, 2009 [7 favorites]


Interesing... I was just wondering this last night...

"The current mess is responsible for 22,000 avoidable deaths per year — a 9/11 scale catastrophe every six weeks."

How come we can't quote that? If we can spend trillions on war to avenge 9/11, why not prevent 9/11 scale (hell, way MORE than 9/11) And that's just the wars, not counting "Homeland Security" and all the other costs that entails.

Is this an approach we should be taking? Put it into their terms?
posted by symbioid at 1:52 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Hmmm.... whether or not I agree with him -- and I do on some points -- OPED + Onion article == GAME OVER, TRY AGAIN.

after another week and hearing about agents of my government threatening to kill the children of prisoners, threatening said prisoners with power tools, and in fact otherwise torturing and murdering said prisoners (all of this fairly well documented factually) I am struggling to figure out what the WIN response is? polite erudite discourse is clearly completely broken in this regard.
posted by geos at 1:54 PM on August 29, 2009


or if it's something else.

I think it's a way to feel powerful. For people who effectively have no political or financial power, cruelty - or lack of compassion/empathy, at least - can make for a feeling of superiority. It's a twisted, warped form of "There but for the grace of god...".
posted by rtha at 1:55 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Was reading somewhere about clementia as both realpolitik and virtue in Roman politics - way back then it was understood that as well as being good in itself, clemency was a demonstration of power. Revenge was for the weak and beneath the great in spirit; you get the idea in Seneca's 'On Mercy':
Mercy, then, makes rulers not only more honoured, but safer, and is at the same time the glory of sovereign power and its surest protection. For why is it that kings have grown old and have handed on their thrones to children and grandchildren, while tyrants' sway is accursed and short? What difference is there between a tyrant and a king (for they are alike in the mere outward show of fortune and extent of power), except that tyrants are cruel to serve their pleasure, kings only for a reason and by necessity?
posted by Abiezer at 2:05 PM on August 29, 2009 [11 favorites]


I am struggling to figure out what the WIN response is?

Something more substantive than a blog post and an Onion article, maybe?
posted by Afroblanco at 2:06 PM on August 29, 2009


Is this an approach we should be taking? Put it into their terms?

Absolutely. I've been doing it.
posted by vibrotronica at 2:06 PM on August 29, 2009


adipocere presents a nice definition of "mercy": "Nobody ever "deserves" mercy....Mercy is the suspension of a just and deserving punishment...That said, were the suspension become automatic, formulaic, decided by a pre-ordained set of rules, that is not mercy, just a change in the standards of punishment. Mercy is, most importantly, optional and discretional."

However, I don't think that that is the definition Stross is using. His assertion is that the US is systematically unmerciful, and that this could be corrected by a systematic change -- eg, by making it more like the Scottish system. More fundamentally, he argues, the problems in the US system derive from the lack of mercy in US citizens, towards the worse off in general. This mercilessness is not, however, due to a strict adherence to a code of punishment that admits not exceptions, but instead derives -- he argues -- from an atavistic desire to do harm to criminals. The solution is not more governor's pardons (on the government side) nor more bleeding hearts (on the citizen's side), but rather a systematic change in both, towards a set of beliefs and rules that are systematically more merciful. "Merciful" in the sense of weighing individual suffering against societal good, and acknowledging that, in those cases where the good of society is unharmed, punishment should be foregone for the sake of even the most evil person. I know, we all want to torture and kill mass murderers, but we are merciful in the systematic sense when we say, well, he hasn't gotten all the punishment he deserves, but society won't be worse off if he's not being constantly waterboarded over his last weeks to live, so we might has well let him die in peace. That decision is not arbitrary, and not a matter of feeling sympathy for either the criminal or his victims. It's just a systematic decision to say, where punishment does no more good, forego it.
posted by chortly at 2:11 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Something more substantive than a blog post and an Onion article, maybe?

It seems to me that a thoughtful, interesting blog post by a famous author may well qualify as "best of the web". Whether this particular post qualifies is a different question, of course, but certainly I'd far prefer to see more posts like this than yet another youtube of people's pets doing cute things. In any case, you said your bit so why not move on?
posted by Justinian at 2:21 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Something more substantive than a blog post and an Onion article, maybe?

but the substance of the issue is entirely plain, there's nothing to discuss and the politics of it seem to be a combination of might makes right and victor's justice. maybe the best response is mockery: disposable pop culture and the friction of cynicism.
posted by geos at 2:21 PM on August 29, 2009


The solution is not more governor's pardons (on the government side) nor more bleeding hearts (on the citizen's side), but rather a systematic change in both, towards a set of beliefs and rules that are systematically more merciful.

I wonder if we have anywhere near a cohesive enough society to make that kind of social value decision. I can't remember who said this, if it was a teacher of mine or something I read, but they said the US isn't a melting pot, it's a poorly-cooked stew. It's hard to get us to agree on much other than we like stuff and we dislike being cold and hungry. But we don't much mind other people not having stuff, or being cold and hungry.

We might mind as individuals, and address these things where we can as individuals, but as a group, not really--only as much as we have to.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:23 PM on August 29, 2009


Mercy and compassion are a thing of the past here in America. Mr Stross' observations are sound and his reasoning is pretty flawless IMHO. I am ashamed, on a daily basis and I'm stunned by the brutality of the actions and opinions of Americans. There's much to be proud of still in America but our value system atm isn't one of them.

*sigh*.......in my mid fifties, I have begun to sound exactley like my dad did during the 60's.
posted by gigbutt at 2:31 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Abiezer: revenge is for the weak

Perhaps the fact that the dominant social class in America identifies themselves as the persecuted and meek who await Jesus' salvation actually works against mercy. They are comfortable seeing themselves as a weak, persecuted minority, so they don't even consider the responsibility that should accompany power.

America is run by people who monopolize power and loudly accuse political minorities of persecuting and victimizing them.
posted by idiopath at 2:40 PM on August 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'd say that Stross is a little off in his blog post, since mercy is a second order effect. Whenever there is a lack of mercy the real problem is a lack of empathy.

Empathy is one of the slowest developing and most important of human emotions. Not being American, I couldn't say if it is deficient in US discourse, but it seems likely that any environment that is significantly polarized between "us" and "them" would be a harder place to understand what it is like to be in another person's shoes - and hence, a place where there is less mercy as well.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:46 PM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


No, you lack all mercy. As adipocere points out, if you deserve it it isn't mercy, it's justice. Mercy is, by definition, given to the undeserving. That's why it's mercy.

Is mercy really that all-or-nothing, though? If spaltavian lacks all mercy because he does not think this one man should be released from prison, then it would seem that to have all mercy would mean that no one should ever be punished for anything. Evidently, having some mercy is not a possible condition? If you really believe that, you may be interested in the Steve Ditko/Ayn Rand thread down the page a little bit...

I agree with the person who said that this may be the worst possible case to use as a way of beginning this dialogue. A man who killed someone, say, in a robbery twenty years ago, and who is now dying...surely his victim's family still feels that act's consequences, but we can reasonably see that the murderer has a family as well. We can see that, even if he doesn't deserve to end his life a free person, his loved ones may deserve to spend his last days with him in a place more comfortable than a jail. But a man who killed hundreds of innocents? If he were in fact innocent, as may be the case, that would obviously be different; he shouldn't have been in prison to start with. But if he's still believed to be guilty, then no, I don't think you're going to have an easy time convincing people that the American government is in the wrong for condemning his release. I'm not convinced. And honestly, I wish that this essay didn't get into the health care debate, because that's a very serious issue here, and it looks like we either won't get it or will get something watered down and useless that's just called health care, but getting it or not at this point depends on solid arguments and appeals to common sense and decency, and prefacing its discussion with a defense of a mass murderer's last chance to hang with his grandkids or what have you makes health care look like a cause supported by people who think mass murderers should go free. Which, politically, just is not terribly helpful.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 2:51 PM on August 29, 2009


There's much to be proud of still in America but our value system atm isn't one of them.

Really? For god sake's, what? I look at the Reagan->Bush II years, and I look at today, and frankly, my country sucks. There is *NOTHING* -- nothing at all -- in the last 35 years that I can stand up and say is an unmitigated good. We have caused the deaths of millions with our geopolitical games, and of course, made a tidy profit selling people the tools to kill the with.

We leave the mentally ill on the street to die. We consider our cities cesspools for the trash, and refuse to maintain the infrastructure of them. We strip trillions of wealth out of the middle class in the market bubble and real estate bubble, but when, finally, the banks fuck up and crash, we're right there to bail them out.

Half this country wants God, whatever the fuck that means, to strike the President down. The President, meanwhile, is accomplish nothing because he want to be bipartisan with the half of the country that would, if given the chance, hang him from a tree and set him on fire.

Let's not forget the bunch of people who think that it is just and good to bring about the end times. Let's not forget Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and whomever we're going to invade next. Let's not forget that we can't afford to fix the holes in the fucking roads, that we can't afford to get health care to 15% of the population, but, by god, we can afford to put 350K combat troops overseas *AND* build THREE more nuclear aircraft carriers, with full air wings aboard.

Yeah, we're a whole bunch of good here. Thankfully, we're not that big, I don't know how much more American Good one planet can take.
posted by eriko at 3:31 PM on August 29, 2009 [11 favorites]


The "level of criminals" in this case is blowing 259 people out of the sky and landing the debris on 11 other people. That's barbarous.

So is invading a sovereign state that had done nothing against us, let alone killing tens-of-thousands of their citizens as they attempted to repel/fight/fuck-up the invaders. But, hey. At least this guy did time. Some folks never even have to see the inside of a jail.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:51 PM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


There's a willingness to be cruel among lower middle class people toward poor people that I've never seen anywhere else, true, heartless, 'let their irresponsibly-begotten babies die if they can't afford to feed them' kind of thinking. Stuff that kind of takes my breath away, and that never ceases to surprise me. I don't know if it's got religious underpinnings, as he suggests, or if it's an outgrowth of being a society that values high consumption above almost anything or if it's something else.

Fear, of course. The closer you are to poverty without actually being poor, the more you fear it, and the more inclined you are to lash out. Like all victim-blaming it's a desperate attempt to reassure yourself that what happened to Group X will never happen to you...because you're not like them. You're smarter or more moral or more beloved of God. Whatever. You wouldn't have worn that slutty skirt, therefore, you wouldn't get raped. You don't have anal sex, therefore, you will never get AIDS.

If they deserved what they got, then you can avoid their fate by not being like them. Magical thinking.
posted by emjaybee at 3:55 PM on August 29, 2009 [7 favorites]


I find it incredibly interesting to note that no one has noted the piece's obviously antagonistic tone it takes towards the US and its policies. The CIA being shady, well, that's a fair point, they were created to be shady, but statements like "it's what the Imperial Presidency is there for" don't exactly paint a picture of someone who's inclined to consider the possibility of other reasons besides "Americans are, on the whole, bad people".

His overly simplistic view of the health care debate is another excellent example. Yes, there are people who oppose universal health care because they hate poor people and want them to die, but the vast majority of the opposition is opposing it because they hate the Democrats, not poor people, and playing political games at the expense of one group or another is certainly not unique to the American political system.

The description of Americans who oppose his release as "the angry spectators who're throwing scat" is particularly ironic, as he's doing precisely the same thing, heaping unfounded speculation and blame on a situation he has very little actual idea about. Those who are angry about Scotland's decision while viewing it through an American viewpoint are just as wrong as he is for decrying the response of Americans without properly understanding their viewpoints, except through his obviously negatively biased preconceptions.

I'm not saying that they shouldn't have let him out. Either he dies in a hospital in Scotland or he dies in a hospital be in Libya, and unless Scotland has a sudden and unexpected change of heart when it comes to capital punishment, he's not going to live any longer or less comfortably in Libya than he would in Scotland, and it scores them some PR points with the rest of the world while being a nice and, yes, merciful thing to do for the guy. But holding this guy up as some kind of deep-thinking commenter on the American tradition would be like asking Rush Limbaugh for a honest critique of the Democrats' health care plan. He's so obviously and plainly biased that it's an exercise in futility.
posted by Punkey at 3:56 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think his point is nicely illustrated by the fact that even here in this hotbed of pinko liberals, around half of us think this old man should die in prison, on the other side of the world, far from family and the country of his birth, for crimes committed half a lifetime ago.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:13 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


he WAS terminally ill.

As are we all, it's just a question of how soon. Seriously, though, I think the outrage would have been a whole lot less if he had gone home on the quiet and not been greeted by cheers and country leader.

It's an emotional issue
posted by IndigoJones at 4:15 PM on August 29, 2009


I find it incredibly interesting to note that no one has noted how absolutely freaking hilarious the onion piece is.
posted by Manjusri at 4:29 PM on August 29, 2009


Rather, a creeping draconian absolutism has cast its penumbra across the entire arena of public discourse, tainting every debate, poisoning and hardening attitudes across the board... Mercy, it would seem, is a scarce commodity in the Empire.

Nigel, please.
posted by fleacircus at 4:42 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


interesting reads about the release:
http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/08/27/why_did_scotland_really_release_libyan_lockerbie_bomber

http://www.economist.com/world/international/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14285220
posted by mulligan at 4:46 PM on August 29, 2009


PeterMcDermott: I think his point is nicely illustrated by the fact that even here in this hotbed of pinko liberals, around half of us think this old man should die in prison, on the other side of the world, far from family and the country of his birth, for crimes committed half a lifetime ago.

Well, he did murder hundreds of innocent people. I don't think wanting him to stay in jail because of it is really a good example of the decline in American mercy. I think the normal standards of what constitutes mercy, even in first-world nations with good human rights records, allows for that. There are thousands of better examples in the US to use.
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:52 PM on August 29, 2009


Really? For god sake's, what? I look at the Reagan->Bush II years, and I look at today, and frankly, my country sucks. There is *NOTHING* -- nothing at all -- in the last 35 years that I can stand up and say is an unmitigated good.

How 'bout people like you can mouth off about your country behind nicknames out of choice, rather than necessity? Surely that counts for something.
posted by codswallop at 5:22 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


The reason why I don't think "mercy" is the right word for what Stross is advocating is that no one can manage to feel sympathy or much emotional concern for someone who committed such crimes, no matter how long ago. But though that may be what "mercy" usually means, it is clear from his essay that this actually is a good example for his point, because it contrasts the desire to punish not with compassionate sympathy, but rather with the principle that punishment must be doing some good to be justified: "That's because the justice system isn't solely about punishment. It's about respect for the greater good of society, which is better served by rehabilitation and reconcilliation than by revenge." Nobody is really arguing that you shouldn't want revenge on this guy -- though "mercy" muddles that point -- instead, they're just saying, when the punishment can no longer do any good for society, don't bother. You aren't supposed to feel sorry for the guy -- just do the right thing, even if you feel he "deserves" worse. Punishment isn't about making you feel better.
posted by chortly at 5:49 PM on August 29, 2009


The fact that he arrived in Libya and was treated to a hero's welcome, and that there was no retaliation, is a good argument against the notion of "imperial America". An imperial America would not brook such impudence, and would wipe the smirk off Gaddafi's face with a barrage of cruise missiles within hours.

Or, as they said in Imperial Rome, "Carthago delenda est."
posted by acb at 6:09 PM on August 29, 2009


>The fact that he arrived in Libya and was treated to a hero's welcome

What was the reasoning behind the welcome?
Was he welcomed as a bomber who has now been freed or as an innocent man who as been freed?

I think that makes quite a difference in how anyone responds to the 'hero's welcome'
posted by mulligan at 6:19 PM on August 29, 2009


I seem to remember that America did unleash a barrage against Gaddafi, and managed to kill one of his adopted children in the process... worked well, eh?

Mercy and compassion, to me, are about demonstrating how to behave. The merciless have had their time, and they lost. We saw what that world would be like. If you are strong enough to impose justice, and wise enough to exercise mercy, then you've won. Who can stand against you? Justice without mercy is the imposition of a machinery of rules: it might work if the machine is perfect, but what machine made by man is? Mercy without justice is a parody of order. The two together show power and humility, the understanding that the human condition is flawed but those flaws don't deny our humanity.

And yes, when you look a mass murderer in the eye and say "go, and sin no more", you are asking those who have been hurt to pay a high price. That's why it's valuable.
posted by Devonian at 7:09 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


eriko, you mean nothing at all in American politics and the 33% of American society that is composed of raging moron fundies.

The rest of America's not too bad.
posted by kldickson at 7:32 PM on August 29, 2009


Hmm. I think this guy's really on to something. Though it was just a blog rant, it really struck a chord for me, in an unexpected way.

I kept flashing back to how it felt being a gay kid in the Bible Belt. I didn't have it all that rough -- my family wasn't especially religious or homophobic, but still there was something deeply menacing in the social atmosphere, this feeling that if I came out, I'd no longer qualify as someone deserving of mercy. I'd never put it into those terms until now, but the implicit threat of the withdrawal of mercy was, in retrospect, quite palpable. Now I have a name, or at least a conceptual placeholder, for that feeling.
posted by treepour at 7:48 PM on August 29, 2009 [7 favorites]


A truly civilized nation would have let him out after 6 months.
posted by Wood at 11:17 PM on August 29, 2009


I just dug up a copy of the English-language "The Tripoli Post", dated June 12-25, 2004 from when I was there. On the front page, it has an article about the passing of Reagan. Let me quote it here, because it seems relevant:
Reagan Dies, without Facing trial

Arabs: Reagan Presidency "Bad Era" for Arab Just Causes

Tripoli - The former American President Ronald Reagan, who died last Saturday, will be remembered in Libya as the "Cowboy" who ordered hundreds of aircraft to bomb sleeping children in Libyan cities during the early hours of 15 April 1986. Many people were killed and injured, including Al-Qathafi's 14-month old daughter.

The Leader of the Revolution Muammar Al-Qathafi expressed regret that Reagan died before facing trial for his actions in that year.

He told the Libyan news agency JANA on Sunday "I express my deep regret that Reagan died before facing justice for his ugly crime that he committed in 1986 against the Libyan children."

However, Al-Qathafi is not alone in looking back on Reagan's presidency as an era of injustice within the United States itself, especially against the African American minority, and an era of aggression abroad.

...The record of the Reagan presidency includes also the killing fields of Nicaragua, the invasion Grenada, Iran-Contra gate, to name a few.
The article goes on to talk about US intervention in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Rumsfeld's continuing role in US Defense policy. The article then talks about how Reagan was unloved by a large swath of the US public for his policies and talks about how Reagan and Bush, Jr. were similar, quoting a passage it attributes to American journalist Ted Rall:
"Reagan, like Bush 43, technically served in the military yet studiously avoided combat. Both men were physically robust, intellectually inadequate, poorly traveled former governors renowned for stabbing friends on the back -- Reagan when he named names during McCarthyism. Both appointed former generals as secretaries of state and enemies of the environment to head the Department of the Interior. Both refused to read detailed briefings, worked short hours, behaved erratically in public appearances, ducked questions about sordid pasts, and relied on Christianist (the radical right equivalent of Islamist) depictions of foes as "evil" and America, invariably embodied by himself and the Republicans, as "good". Based on intelligence as phony as that floated to justify the war against Iraq, Reagan bombed Muslim Libya."
Propaganda, to be sure, but I thought I'd share it to get a sense of how Reagan, et al., were being depicted as war criminals in the English-language newspapers in Libya five years ago.
posted by darkstar at 11:19 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


(grammatical and other errors preserved)
posted by darkstar at 11:23 PM on August 29, 2009


Perhaps a better word than mercy, in the context, is "kindness", the opposite of cruelty. Kindness is independent of what the recipient might or might not actually deserve. It is quite possible for a kind society to decide that you as a dangerous criminal must be confined (or even killed), for the betterment of everyone else. The distinction is that your rights will be seriously considered, and your own suffering in the process reduced to the minimum possible.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:23 PM on August 29, 2009


What a kind society will not decide though is that you (whether or not a dangerous criminal) should be confined because it is desirable that you suffer. Or because it is funny.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:25 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I kept flashing back to how it felt being a gay kid in the Bible Belt. I didn't have it all that rough -- my family wasn't especially religious or homophobic, but still there was something deeply menacing in the social atmosphere, this feeling that if I came out, I'd no longer qualify as someone deserving of mercy. I'd never put it into those terms until now, but the implicit threat of the withdrawal of mercy was, in retrospect, quite palpable. Now I have a name, or at least a conceptual placeholder, for that feeling.

Exact same experience when I was growing up, treepour.

In fact, just tonight, I came out to a friend of mine in the ministry (I used to be a colleague). We were talking about challenges with relationships, temptation, etc. So I was honest with him and told him I was gay. And, just in the way you describe, the whole relationship changed in an instant.

Ah well.
posted by darkstar at 11:29 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


A point I missed out of my original article that has mostly been missed by the press coverage:

The Scottish prison system is fairly small (around 7-8000 inmates, total). It has no resources for nursing terminally ill inmates; they have to be cared for in NHS hospitals. It has thus become normal for the terminally ill to petition for release on compassionate grounds, and for this to be granted -- the Justice Minister has to believe they're a continuing danger to the public for the request to be refused.

Of the past 30 applicants for release on compassionate grounds due to terminal illness, only 4 were refused.
posted by cstross at 3:09 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh CTFO. Is it really mercy when you agree to release a known terrorist for oil contracts? The same people who cried "No blood for oil!" six years ago are now applauding this guy's release? A little intellectual consistency, please.
posted by billysumday at 4:47 AM on August 30, 2009


The people who tried and failed to get him released for oil were the UK labour government under the prisoner transfer agreement they negotiated with Libya. The Scottish government explicitly refused to go along with that.
posted by Flitcraft at 5:51 AM on August 30, 2009


So the argument is: sure, the UK government spent about three years trying to hammer out a prisoner transfer agreement and a lucrative oil contract, but ultimately they decided to throw in the towel and give up on the deal. However, would you believe it? Miraculously, they ended up ratifying the oil contract while the Scottish government conveniently released Libya's prized prisoner.

Mm hmm. Makes sense to me.
posted by billysumday at 6:04 AM on August 30, 2009


>The fact that he arrived in Libya and was treated to a hero's welcome

What was the reasoning behind the welcome?
Was he welcomed as a bomber who has now been freed or as an innocent man who as been freed?

I think that makes quite a difference in how anyone responds to the 'hero's welcome'


The grounds for release were compassion for a dying man, not because he he had been been found an innocent man. Had British jurisprudence declared and shown convincingly that he was innocent - less outrage.

I've no idea what was running through the minds of the Libyans shouting huzzah's. But the case of innocence is not widespread in the west, regardless

(Or, as they said in Imperial Rome, "Carthago delenda est."

It's a quibble, but historians generally ascribe Imperial Rome to 27 BC and after. Cato the Censor's call for trashing Cathage was closer to 200 BC.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:27 AM on August 30, 2009


The fact that he arrived in Libya and was treated to a hero's welcome, and that there was no retaliation, is a good argument against the notion of "imperial America". An imperial America would not brook such impudence, and would wipe the smirk off Gaddafi's face with a barrage of cruise missiles within hours.

Or, as they said in Imperial Rome, "Carthago delenda est."


Just noting that Libya has much more recent examples of interactions with the US that, to their mind, confirm the imperial nature of US foreign policy. As the article I transcribed notes, they still view the 1986 bombing - not to mention the US involvement in other regions - as unequivocal example of American imperialism, etc.

Not to mention that the hymn of one of our branches of military still extols our intervention in Libya ("...to the shores of Tripoli").

Also, to add another minor quibble, the hub of ancient Carthage was located primarily in modern-day Tunisia, not Libya. Though there were some areas in modern Libya that were part of the Carthaginian Empire (Leptis Magna, ancient Tripoli, for example), it wasn't the primary focus of Scipio's campaign to sack Carthage, for example. Tripoli and Leptis Magna were generally spared being "delenda-ed" and Libyan Punic culture and language persisted in those areas for quite some time under the Roman Empire. In fact, they fared pretty well under the Romans, in general, and particularly under Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, who was Libyan. The Vandals were Libya's real problem.

A much more recent example of clear-cut imperialism pertaining to Libya would probably be the long Italian attempt at colonization of Libya through the first half of the 20th Century. It's notable that the Allies liberated Libya in WWII, but that this is not seen by Libyans - the ones currently in power and controlling the newspapers, anyway - as example of the absence of US imperialist interest in that country.
posted by darkstar at 10:08 AM on August 30, 2009


Well, this strikes me as analogous to the death penalty in the United States. The reason why many of us opposed to the death penalty speak up against the execution of the most infamous persons, is because we know that the system we have is complete crap when it comes to deciding who deserves the death penalty. The most infamous murderers sometimes get the death penalty, but disproportionately the death penalty is handed down on the basis of poverty, judicial malpractice, and race. As death penalty sentences are often only rhetorically related to the severity of the crime, it can't be called a fair punishment.

And likewise, if you argue an exception should be made in the application of compassionate leave in the case of Al Megrahi, where there is a strong hint of political manipulation and bias, then you open the door to denial of compassionate leave on the basis of many other exceptions.

It's not about Al Megrahi, it's about how the criminal justice system works as a whole.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:19 AM on August 30, 2009


billysumday: your assumption that the Scottish government is cooperating with the British government is not terribly plausible, given that the British ruling party is Labour, while in Scotland the ruling party is the Scottish Nationalist Party, and Labour are their scorched-earth hate-each-other-to-death opposition.
posted by cstross at 10:52 AM on August 30, 2009


So the argument is: sure, the UK government spent about three years trying to hammer out a prisoner transfer agreement and a lucrative oil contract, but ultimately they decided to throw in the towel and give up on the deal. However, would you believe it? Miraculously, they ended up ratifying the oil contract while the Scottish government conveniently released Libya's prized prisoner.

Well, miraculously the prisoner developed terminal cancer, which no-one foresaw three years ago which meant that an entirely different part of Scots law came to apply to him - the bit where we normally release people who are in the last stages of terminal illness. The Scottish government knew about and rejected the prisoner transfer agreement for oil developed by Blair and Straw, but couldn't let that improperly influence consideration of what happens when the prisoner develops a terminal illness. Unless Jack Straw broke into the jail and stuck a cancer tumour up the poor bloke's arse, then he and the UK government have nothing to do with it.
posted by Flitcraft at 11:02 AM on August 30, 2009


Just to be clear for non-Scots - Labour and the SNP are deadly political enemies. If the SNP wanted to play politics they needed only to keep al-Megrahi in jail. They could have scored points against Labour by saying they'd never consider his repatriation - unlike Straw and Blair, pleased the Americans and pleased the electorally-important 'tough on crime' bloc of tabloid press readers in Scotland who usually vote Labour. They chose instead to do something much harder - to stick to our principles that jail, and the kind of jail facilities we can provide, is no place for the terminally ill.
posted by Flitcraft at 11:11 AM on August 30, 2009


The "level of criminals" in this case is blowing 259 people out of the sky and landing the debris on 11 other people. That's barbarous.

So is invading a sovereign state that had done nothing against us,


I agree, which is why I was against the war since Day One. Did you have a point? Or do you just hold me personally responsible for every decision made by the American government? Or should a mass murderer go free because the American government has done bad things too?
posted by spaltavian at 12:03 PM on August 30, 2009


spaltavian: Or should a mass murderer go free because the American government has done bad things too?

If the lack of end-of-life hospice care within the criminal justice system would render that person's final months cruel and unusual punishment, the answer is clearly yes.

Because the consistent application of rights that are foundational to the criminal justice system is more important than political and emotional outrage over a single man. Because those rights protect thousands of people currently within the criminal justice system, along with you and I if we should ever run afoul of it. Because we hold those rights to be among the foundational principles of our legitimacy as governments and nations.

That's the cost of living in a country that aspires to rights and rule of law. Sometimes, the rule of law lets the guilty go free.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:30 PM on August 30, 2009


And at least here in the United States, compassionate leave isn't "going free." The prisoner is paroled to the care of a physician, usually at a point where death is considered imminent in the next few months and the prisoner's general state of health renders him or her a low risk of committing further crime or flight. Al Megrahi seems to be a particular case having been immediately deported and dumped on the Libyan government, but that's another story.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:55 PM on August 30, 2009


Because the consistent application of rights that are foundational to the criminal justice system is more important than political and emotional outrage over a single man. Because those rights protect thousands of people currently within the criminal justice system, along with you and I if we should ever run afoul of it. Because we hold those rights to be among the foundational principles of our legitimacy as governments and nations.

Quoted for truth. It's called justice, not revenge. Criminals should get the punishment called for and no more, whether it be a year or life (and release only when terminally ill).
posted by kldickson at 1:58 PM on August 30, 2009


One thing that strikes me is the lack of cognitive depth a lot of these emotional arguments contain. They're all-or-nothing, without any consideration of ethical subtleties, and they descend to the level of the person who committed the crime.
posted by kldickson at 2:00 PM on August 30, 2009


In fact, cognitive shallowness unfortunately runs rampant in America. Teabagger shoutfests are a prime example of this; they don't even seem to consider the various nuances of this or try to put themselves in other people's shoes. They're intellectually shallow and extremely vapid. There's no 'but's or 'however's in their ideas at all.
posted by kldickson at 2:04 PM on August 30, 2009


It's called justice, not revenge.

Life in prison for mass-murder isn't "revenge". I have no bloodlust, my concern is with deterrence, the safety of the public at large, the right of society to protect itself and the consistent and ethical application of justice. All of which are a fuckload more important to me than your desire to beat your chest in a morality competition, which by the way, comes across as vapid and shallow to me.

If the lack of end-of-life hospice care within the criminal justice system would render that person's final months cruel and unusual punishment, the answer is clearly yes.

Cancer, as a disease, is a cruel. First-world medicine provided for free to treat the disease is not.

Because the consistent application of rights that are foundational to the criminal justice system is more important than political and emotional outrage over a single man.


I'm torn, because I'd like to ask where the right of people not be murdered fits in this smugly superior lecture on the foundation of justice. But the more pressing matter seems to be that you think I'm against the concept of compassionate release. Perhaps you have absorbed the message of kldickson and Charles Stross that anyone who disagrees with this particular decision is a mouth-foaming simpleton and masturbates to Christians-to-the-lions revenge fantasies.

There is nothing automatically consistent about the application of rights in releasing a mass-murderer because he's sick. I don't know the compassionate release stats, so I don't know if lazier murderers, the ones who only bothered to kill one person, get out of jail when they are sick very often. There's also nothing inconsistent about allowing compassionate release for those who murder fewer numbers, but not for mass-murderers. There's also nothing inconsistent about restricting compassionate release from all murderers. What's illogical is your implication that there must be at least the possibility of get-out-of-jail card for everyone, regardless of crime, for their to be any mercy or respect for rights. The respect for a criminal's rights lies in his access to due process and his right to be as safe as reasonably as possible while incarcerated.

There is nothing "cruel and unusual" about life in prison, and it's certainly a reasonable penalty for the (quite unreasonable) crime. Terminal cancer doesn't change that. In the final calculus, we are all terminally ill and the idea that one should be freed because something bad happened to them, regardless of what they have done, is only consistent in its lunacy. At least with parole, someone must be deemed no longer a threat to society, but in this case not even that metric had to be reached.


Sometimes, the rule of law lets the guilty go free.


Yeah, when evidence is collected improperly. Or when there's not enough evidence to begin with. Or when someone gets off on a technicality. Or when a nakedly bogus insanity plea is used. Or when an executive uses their power to pardon a criminal. All of which are necessary in a just society.

The argument over the rule of law, however, does not really apply here. I never said the man's release was illegal-- but simply absurd. The "rule of law" did not demand this release, so there is not basis to the moral grandstanding that one must be for this release if one is to have a respect for rights and justice.
posted by spaltavian at 2:46 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Straw: Megrahi inclusion in Libya prisoner deal was 'in UK interests'. Leaked letters from justice secretary to Scottish counterpart Kenny MacAskill increase controversy over release of man convicted of Lockerbie bombing
posted by homunculus at 2:49 PM on August 30, 2009


tl;dr summary: Saying it's possible for a criminal's offense to be too heinous to be given compassionate release is not the same as saying it's possible for a criminal's offense to be too heinous for them to still have rights. And it is certainly not the same as saying vengeance is a legitimate consideration alongside justice.
posted by spaltavian at 2:54 PM on August 30, 2009


Apologies, Anger, and Apathy: My Lai and Lockerbie Reconsidered
posted by homunculus at 4:01 PM on August 30, 2009


spaltavian: Certainly I've not said your are against compassionate release. You are inconsistently for it in ways that are not entirely ethical because you ignore that even Al Megrahi as rights. As for foaming-at-the-mouth, your own words carry that impression as you seem to bristle at imagined offense.

The problem is, the legal rights of those accused of a crime do not end at due process. They include protection from overly cruel punishment, and thus far, even fairly conservative courts have taken the position that the failure to provide a basic level of heath care as required by incarcerated prisoners is a part of that right. That right does not change based on infamy of the crime, or severity of the crime.

If you argue that severity of the crime should determine that minimum quality of care, then you open the door to the same problem that we have in the States regarding the death penalty where judgements about severity are open to discretion and incompetence.

Of course, a long-term solution to the problem are in-system hospitals and hospices. But people still bitch about that, partly because it costs between 2-5 times as much to provide health care within prison environments, and most doctors are not willing to put up with the additional security demands. The bottom line is that denying prisoners dying of terminal disease full palliative care liberally jumps the cruel and unusual standard, and it's hard to see how justice is denied by releasing very sick persons to qualified medical supervision (or deporting them in this case.)

Saying it's possible for a criminal's offense to be too heinous to be given compassionate release is not the same as saying it's possible for a criminal's offense to be too heinous for them to still have rights.

Of course not. But in this case, you are arguing that Al Megrahi's crime is so heinous that he should have been denied his right to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. That's the bottom line here. If he has that right, the criminal justice system in Scotland has the obligation to determine whether his pressing medical needs can be met within the system, and release him if they can't.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:14 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Homunculus,
Straw wrote to Kenny Macaskill about the prisoner transfer agreement, which Macaskill objected to then, and which Macaskill never changed his objection to - that's what I was talking about in my previous comments. Bear in mind that Labour could reasonably expect to get a Labour Justice Secretary in Scotland at some point in the not-too-distant future, as Scotland quite often votes Labour. Straw or his successor could then quite reasonably expect that a Scottish Labour justice secretary would use the Prisoner Transfer Agreement that Labour set up, and that they'd do what they were told.
posted by Flitcraft at 4:20 PM on August 30, 2009


Which, I should clarify that the high cost of prisoner health care isn't because prisoners are getting higher quality of care. Hard time will knock years off your life expectancy, and prisoners in the United States criminal justice systems have pandemic levels of HIV, Hep., diabetes, and heart disease. The costs comes from the security overhead in getting doctors and prisoners safely in the same room.

In the United States, the increasing number of lifers in the system are an economic time bomb waiting to happen. I strongly suspect we had better get used to the idea of compassionate leave, because I don't think we'll have a choice.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:39 PM on August 30, 2009


In fact, cognitive shallowness unfortunately runs rampant in America. Teabagger shoutfests are a prime example of this; they don't even seem to consider the various nuances of this or try to put themselves in other people's shoes. They're intellectually shallow and extremely vapid. There's no 'but's or 'however's in their ideas at all.

I think you may fail to understand that the teabaggers are a small and generally very stupid faction of a party that got its ass relentlessly kicked in the last presidential election. It's unfair to point them out as representative of America when the whole point of them is that they're not the majority and cannot stand it.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:43 PM on August 30, 2009


My reluctance to embrace the notion that the criminal justice system should consider severity in regards to certain rights held by prisoners is because that appears to be the type of decision most vulnerable to malpractice and bias. It's not about Al Megrahi, it's about whether we can trust criminal justice systems to make such decisions regarding the fundamental rights of prisoners on the basis of something we know to be generally fraught with bias.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:30 PM on August 30, 2009


There's no right to compassionate release, so this has nothing to do with a crime's severity in consideration of a criminal's rights. I don't think being in jail with cancer is cruel and unusual punishment- and neither do the people who released Al Megrahi, because they didn't release him on those grounds.

They released him on compassionate grounds; which I don't not believe is appropriate when dealing with a mass-murderer. Compassionate release is not a right; it is an "extra" given by society.
posted by spaltavian at 6:22 AM on August 31, 2009


Inmates within correctional systems have a right to a basic standard of health care. For a person dying in the late stages of terminal cancer, that entails round-the-clock administration of medicine and care of bodily needs. Correctional institutions by their nature are often unable to provide that care without an in-system hospital, so the prisoner must be transfered out of system for that care to be provided. Prisoners are also routinely transfered out-of-system for surgical procedures that are beyond the scope of in-house medical services.

And the other side of the coin is that providing those services in high-security settings is prohibitively expensive, labor-intensive, and can compromise the security of the prison. So just from a costs and management perspective, the transfer of a very sick and moribund patient who poses a minimal risk to the community to a medical institution is often necessary.

Whether you like it or not, Al Megrahi has a right to a basic standard of health care, and the correctional system of Scotland is obligated to provide it or release him if they can't. Whether he's a mass murderer or not is not that relevant.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:11 AM on August 31, 2009


Here's an interesting piece by Stross on "overhumanism": Chrome Plated Jackboots.
posted by homunculus at 1:53 PM on September 5, 2009


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