Why we shouldn’t give into our primal instincts

I oppose the death penalty. I don’t think the state should be able to legally kill its own citizens (even the scum) and I also don’t like the risk of an innocent person being executed as has happened in the US.

But despite that when I read about some dreg of society raping a five year old, or sticking a two year old in a clothes dryer, that my primal instinct is to wish that person dead. If someone raped someone very close to me, my instincts would be to wonder if I could kill them myself.

I doubt I am unique in having a fairly primal emotional response to those who commit horrific crimes. If you don’t have such a response – well you’re a better person than me.

But we’ve had a good lesson this week on why one should not give into one insitcive desire for harsh and swift justice without due process – ie a trial.

I recall many years ago the death by cancer of a close family friend. During her funeral a burglar tried to rob her place (they see the funeral notice asking for donations to a hospice and conclude there are drugs on the premise they can steal to sell). This is about as scummy as it gets – robbing a mourning family during their mother’s funeral. As it happened one of the sons was a cop, and a couple of his colleagues said they would keep an eye on his place during the funeral. They caught the burglar in the act, and I recall hearing that the burglar had fallen down the steps a couple of times.

I’d be lying if I said that I was greatly upset at the time (this was around 20 years ago incidentially). Robbing a family during their mother’s funeral is a very scummy thing to do.

Likewise as there were reports of looters during the earthquake, a few of them got arrested. And what they did was hugely offensive to most of us. A typical example of a scummy looter was Jed Wilson-Carver.

A number of people commented about how they were disappointed Mr Wilson-Carver had not fallen down any flights of steps. And to be honest on a primal level, that was pretty much my response also.

But then we had another “looter” appear in court, and it looked like indeed he had fallen down many flights of steps. He was Cornelius Arie Smith-Voorkamp. The Herald reports:

A young autistic man who became “the face of looting” in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake is unlikely to lay a complaint over a beating he alleges he received from the arresting officers.

Incidentially I understand he has alleged they were Australian, not NZ, police officers. But that is by the by.

Cornelius Arie Smith-Voorkamp, 25, has a mental disability that compels him to take light fixtures, and he was arrested for stealing two light bulbs and an antique light fitting from a quake-damaged home.

Now let’s be clear about this. He still broke the law, and did wrong. And in the fullness of time will be dealt with by the criminal justice system. He already has spent several days in prison. So this is not to say he is without fault or guilt.

But it seems very clear he was not someone who was in the same category as Mr Wilson-Carver. He wasn’t really a looter, seeking to inflict misery and make illegal monetary gain from the earthquake.

And so this is a good reminder about why we shouldn’t give into our primal instincts. Why punishments should be meted out by a Judge and/or jury after a trial – not by the Police or vigilantes based on what we think are the facts.

I’m still going to silently hope that certain criminals get staked out over an ant burrow and covered in honey, but I don’t want a criminal justice system based on my primal instincts – or anyone else’s.

And as much as the Police must be very tempted to hand out “bush justice” to some of the criminals they deal with, this case is a good example of why that should remain unacceptable.

UPDATE: It is worth noting that the Police are alleged to have assaulted Smith-Voorkamp, but this is disputed, and a formal complaint has not been laid. There are some inconsistencies around the allegations – originally his mother said they were Australian cops, but NZ cops arrested him. regardless my post was not aimed at the Police, it was a reflection on why we should have due process in our criminal system.

Talking of due process though, Whale Oil has a quote from a senior politician calling for looters to get court-martialed and a firing sqaud. Go check it out – you may be surprised with who the politician is.

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