Posted by BE on June 27th, 2016
Followers of this site and of my writing and broadcasting will know that in matters of crime and punishment my approach could reasonably be defined as “liberal”. That approach was perhaps best summarised in Baby in the Monster, a piece about Malcolm Rewa originally broadcast on National Radio’s Top Of The Morning and later included in a collection of columns from the programme, entitled Brian’s Week. Here are a couple of paragraphs from Baby in the Monster:
“So how and why do monsters emerge? My own view as a hard determinist is that nature and nurture conspire to make us what we are. But whether you accept that view or not, it is undeniable that the formative experiences of childhood and youth play a critical role in whether we become saint or sinner. Violent offenders, not least those who abuse women and children, were themselves almost invariably the victims of violence and abuse.
“I like to look at the people around me and imagine them as little babies. The saintly person was once a little baby, but so too was the monster. Baby and saint, baby and monster are not two separate people but stages in the life of one person. Between baby and saint, baby and monster, there stretches a continuum along which things happen to each of them that determine what they will be at any given stage of their lives. (This, incidentally, is more or less the same conclusion reached in the brilliant television series Why Am I? based on the Dunedin Longitudinal Study and broadcast on TVOne.)
“Only by separating people from their personal histories, by treating the person now as though he or she had no connection with the person then, is it possible to condemn them outright, to dismiss them as sub-human. It’s easy, of course, to see the baby in the saint. The real skill is in seeing the baby in the monster.”
This is still my view. Poverty, poor housing, unemployment, educational underachievement and family violence are among the drivers of social alienation and violent offending. When we punish the violent offenders in our midst we are most often punishing people who were themselves victim of parental neglect and family violence.
Which brings me to little Moko Sayviah Rangitoheriri, beaten and tortured to death by David William Haerewa and Tania Shailer, his “carers”. As I read the reports of their trial I found it increasingly difficult to find the baby in either of these monsters. Nor could I fathom how torturing a four-year-old to death could be seen as anything less than a horrific and protracted act of murder.
So I find myself in the uncomfortable position of joining those who believe that nothing less than life imprisonment will serve as adequate punishment for these particular monsters. An inconsistency on my part perhaps, since no doubt their life histories could reveal clues to the determinants that made them the people they are today. Sometimes you just have to stop listening to your head and tune in to your heart instead. Moko Sayviah Rangitoheriri deserves no less.
Gender roles and skills are not instinctive, they are learned via mimicry (no one gives us a book on babies do they), and if the family is socially isolated and the children themselves suffer physical and emotional abuse, then chances are they won’t have the first clue re baby care (in modern society with no extended family/community, we are seeing this everywhere btw). Sometimes its hard to see the monster in the baby, until you closely look at the parents. Monsters are not born, they are almost allways made.
There is not justification however for abuse or killing, but there is almost always a trail to the cause.
Thanks Paul. I’m not sure if you saw a recent TV series which looked at the “psychotic personality”. My memory is that there were observable differences between the brains of non-psychotic and psychotic individuals. At the end of the series the programme host, a world-renowned psychologist, revealed that he himself had ‘a psychotic brain’. But the energy, drive, intensity of feeling and sometimes recklessness that were part of his personality were channeled into his work and his passion for his family. He was in fact a model citizen who might under different circumstances have diverted those drives into the most egregious crimes, including murder. Those different circumstances might include poverty, unemployment, poor education, but particularly experience of neglect or abuse in early life. You’re right, none of this excuses anti-social behaviour, but it may provide a reason for such behaviour.
During the past 10+ years of going in and out of prisons visiting people accused of various crimes (usually they’re not convicted, unless they have a human rights issue they want aired) I’ve heard many a life story. Some of them are horrific; some almost mundane in the way the neglect, alcoholism, and occasional (though not life-ending) violence mirrors hundreds of others.
I’ve talked to people who were raped by older family members (sometimes more than one); for whom a “hiding” was about the only contact they had with one or sometimes both parents; whose entire family, two or increasingly three generations worth, were on some benefit or other.
Most were in jail awaiting trial on drug-related charges; a few for refusing to stop for a police car, or breaching their parole on another charge by being found with alcohol or drugs or both in their system… victimless crimes.
A handful were there for armed robbery, or discharging a firearm at a criminal associate. A couple were charged with murder.
The one common thread, apart from an appalling upbringing, was the heartbreak they so evidently felt from being separated from their children.
I’ve met dozens of partners and children in the visiting centres of various prisons. All of them spoke of missing the incarcerated prisoner. None showed signs – physical or psychological – of having been beaten or abused. All hoped to continue the relationship once the sentence was over.
So no, the majority of people subject to the determinants of which you speak do not brutalise small children for sport. Most damage themselves, and a smaller proportion terrorise non-family members. Some were no doubt less-than-ideal parents, but their children were not bruised, broken or deceased.
Like you, I’m a liberal on issues of crime and punishment. But like you, I have concluded it takes a special type sociopath to set out to repeatedly harm a small child, and to then do so with no empathy for its pain, distress and confusion… and that that pathology renders them unsuitable for release until they are too old and too feeble to pose a risk to another child, if at all. And I say that as someone who has campaigned to have a convicted murderer released.
Thanks Rex. Can’t disagree with any of that. But there’s a social dilemma implicit in your and my position: what to do with the offender? The Scandinavians seem to have a better handle on this than us. The offender is separated from normal society, but the emphasis is on rehabilitation rather than punishment.In one case, the “prison” is situated on an island, from which escape is impossible. But in most other aspects life for the prisoner is as close as possible to normal life. And it works.
[I’ve forgotten much of the detail. Would appreciate hearing from anyone who’s seen the TV doco/series on this and can help me track it down again.]
Probably not the one you’re thinking of Brian but this is good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfEsz812Q1I
There’s a wealth of research on the Nordic prison model and yes, it does work better. I’d throw more of it at you, but I’m flat stick with the Australian election at present.
Can I recommend you follow the Asia Pacific Institute for Restorative Justice (of which I’m a founding member) on Facebook for lots more interesting research (others welcome too, of course): https://www.facebook.com/Asia-Pacific-Forum-for-Restorative-Justice-139262679417292/
A serious offender is almost certainly the victim of faulty genetics (including epigenetics which may result from absorption in utero of harmful substances such as ethanol), neglect and/or abuse as a child, brain damage arising from abuse of drugs such as cocaine. It is therefore difficult to blame such people for their horrendous acts. But leaving them in society leaves anyone (politician or citizen) advocating such policy renders such advocates complicit in horrifc acts committed by the criminal. Above all, such criminals should not be allowed to produce or rear children, which simply maintains a vicious cycle generating exponential growth in crime. BE, it sounds as if the Scandinavians are more rational than NZers.
Nietzsche might have liked your suggestion. I don’t. The seemingly rational solution is entirely capable of being utterly inhumane. Taking human life, whether of an adult or an infant and rationalizing that decision on the entirely uncertain prediction of how that child will turn out – well, that route takes you directly to the gas chamber.
Is there a case for vasectomy to reduce the odds of violent/impulsive criminal genes being passed on?
Are there too many roosters in the hen-house?
When will women learn that children may not be safe left with men who are not their fathers? Or certain women even …
We have a society in NZ called Plunket which was set up in 1907 to help mothers and save the babies who were dying from malnutrition and disease. It would appear we now need a society that saves babies and young children from neglect and abuse.
No doubt the naysayers will call it meddling in peoples private affairs or more rampant socialism or nanny state interference. But the reality is we desperately need to do something very soon.
Can we depend on our politicians to make this happen, or do we need another Sir Frederic Truby King.
Yes, Plunket, they were very comfortable with nice middle class mums, not so hot with people with problems.
That’s a fact.
I remember reading a few weeks ago about an unfortunate young man with mental problems who spends twenty three hours a day in a cell furnished with a mattress on the floor and a bottle for micturition. He has not been put there by the courts but by health authorities who believe he is too dangerous to be allowed elsewhere.
We also hear about convicted violent people who, the corrections authorities believe, are still a danger to the public but must be released into society because they have served their sentences and can be incarcerated no longer.
Perhaps the health authorities could lock up the dangerous offenders and the corrections authorities could take charge of the young man with mental problems. He would, surely, be better off in prison.
Well, there’s two dimensions to this situation that interest me. The inter-generational violence cycle in families and the question of evil.
In regard to the former, I don’t see behavioural change happening much. Like you, Brian, I still find the old socialist prescription to be valid – despite that I’ve never been a socialist. But there’s an embodiment effect with the emotions that makes them appear to determine behaviour. Not hard-wired, not implacable, but extremely hard to eliminate.
The verdict on rehabilitation thus far seems mixed, and I feel the media are lax in their reporting around this. Experts testifying on the basis of their professional experience ought to be fronting with accurate stats to inform us of the proportion of violent inmates successfully cured.
Postmodernists claiming that evil doesn’t exist are merely one source of bullshit in contemporary society. Anyone who believes evil isn’t real lessens their prospect of surviving their first encounter with it: they are insufficiently alert to the potential threat and don’t see it coming. That said, the number of violent offenders who are evil seems small, if not tiny. In family violence situations, the offending is almost always due to learned and instinctive responses to situations.
So how to reduce the number of child victims? I was one myself long ago, so I know that escaping is impossible – unless the child becomes aware of a way to get help. In the fifties there was none, and I see no evidence yet that society is trying to provide children with one. Just a whole bunch of liberal hand-wringing going on in the media constantly.
What if we had media that provided a forum for solving social problems? What if politicians were motivated to go beyond slogans and ideology? What if we switched to an economy that isn’t social-darwinist in design? Victimisation need not be inevitable. We ought to know by now that governments can’t save children from market forces and malevolent parents. What they could do, however, is facilitate voluntarism: caring folk with interventionist expertise, operating in the context of independent-agency organisations, funded by philanthropists and directed by competent administrators.
Hey, me too. No one listened to you in the 50’s, the child was usually blamed or accused of lying and roundly punished and punished and punished for drawing attention to the problem.
My hindsight says that the teachers who ‘taught’ me would have noticed and did nothing.
The child psychologist I was sent to would have ‘seen’ and did nothing (especially after being threatened with legal action by my parents!)
The ‘system’ didn’t give a toss, and still doesn’t.
People are now saying that they wished they’d been left in a good foster home permanently, with access to see their biological parents, but with a secure home base with caring folk. I would have grabbed that if I’d been offered.
If your biological parents don’t want/care then the best chance you have is with people who know what caring means.
If your parents are mentally ill or have personality disorders then it can totally warp your perspective. Intervention is vital.
BE: “So I find myself in the uncomfortable position of joining those who believe that nothing less than life imprisonment will serve as adequate punishment for these particular monsters.”
How do you reconcile the above sentiments with this?
What if we required, as a condition for using the state’s birthing facilities, every mum and dad-to-be to undergo parenting training beforehand?
This training would not just deal with nappy-changing and babyhood, but would provide insights into the whole nine yards of child-rearing.
Good prospective parents would welcome the chance to be prepared for the pitfalls of parenthood.
But those who were less than keen would be the ones who needed it most. They could be put on a watch list for future reference.
The worst of them could be disqualified from parenthood before they got a chance to hurt their offspring.
No, I don’t yet know how to do this fairly.
But surely we need some sort of bold solution that has a chance of actually working?
Creating an environment where skilled observers could eyeball potential problem parents would be a start.
Better, of course, to lessen the chances of children becoming monsters.
To this end, compulsory parenting training could be coupled with empathy training at primary school.
I’ve seen personal growth practitioners break adults down with the right emotional triggers, such as a particularly moving song lyric.
Could the same people be employed to make children aware at a deep emotional level of the hurt caused by name-calling, bullying and worse?
Perhaps it should be compulsory for their parents to attend too, as happens at the transformational Discovery for Teens programme.
Somehow we have to reach the bad buggers before they go bad. What we do with them afterwards is almost irrelevant.
Sounds a bit too Brave New World eugenics for my taste. But you make some interesting suggestions in the second half of your comment.