Culture, Global, Politics

In Search of Compassion and Justice

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the ADONAI ELOHIM made the earth and the heaven. (Genesis 12:15)
Why does the creation begin with the Divine Name as the Creator and end with two Names, ADONAI ELOHIM when concluding the creation story? The Midrash explains: This may be compared to a king who had some empty glasses. The King wondered: “If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if, however, I pour cold water, they will contract (and shatter).”
What then did the king do? He poured in a mixture of hot and cold water so the glasses would remain whole. So, said the Holy One: “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be oppressive; on the basis of judgment alone, how would the world be able to exist? I will create it with justice and mercy together and then, maybe, it will be able to endure!” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah)

Ever since Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announced the release of convicted Pan Am bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi this past Thursday, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the precarious balance between justice and mercy.
As you are no doubt aware by now, Scotland went ahead and freed the terminally ill Megrahi on “compassionate grounds” over the furious objections of the American government. Whatever your opinion of this incident, you have to admit it has made for some pretty fascinating reading. I can’t say I ever recall reading so much about the ethics of compassion vs. justice in the op-ed pages before.
Here’s a taste from the American press:

The United States was right to complain to British and Scottish authorities, who now have a great deal of explaining and investigation to do in order to demonstrate the integrity of their handling of the entire matter. At the very least, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who granted al-Megrahi release on compassionate grounds, ought to lose his job. Probably he is not the only one.
Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 killing 259 aboard the 747 passenger jet and 11 people on the ground. Libya and its leader, Moammar Gadhafi were blamed and, ultimately, Libya gave up al-Megrahi. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
This gives us the first reason why the release was wrong. The man was sentenced to life. He served eight years. MacAskill ordered the release on compassionate grounds because the prisoner had terminal prostate cancer. People die in prison all the time, which is, in theory, what phrase life in prison means. Even compassion has its limits and it is warranted in this case only for the victims’ families, the victims themselves having been denied it by their murderers.

Compare that to this British editorial from The Guardian:

MacAskill could have washed his hands of this issue and simply had a terminally ill man spend the few remaining days of his life in a Greenock prison cell. Few, beyond the masters of the British petroleum industry, would have demurred. Certainly not Downing Street, whose haunted incumbent would have been praying for such a verdict, and certainly not America whose default position on justice is: “When in doubt, hang them from the neck… especially if they are poor, black and uneducated.” In the Arab world, there would have been desultory protests but nothing more. Baghdad, Helmand, Kabul and the West Bank are of far more pressing concern than the final resting place of a man they all wished to forget.
But this unprepossessing minister of justice sought to ignore all the serried interests of the global supermen. Instead, he found refuge in the fundamental principles of a judicial system that has served Scotland soundly for more than 400 years. For 16 years now, our statutes have given us leave to release from prison anyone who is deemed by competent medical authority to have three months or less to live. It was a concession rooted in compassion, pity and forgiveness. Few in the United Kingdom have ever taken issue with it. It is a good and just law. MacAskill simply applied it.

Regardless of what we might think about MacAskill’s judgment (I’m personally struggling with this myself), I don’t think it is fair or accurate to claim that his actions were politically motivated. Based upon everything I’ve read so far, it seems to me that he simply acted upon what he considered to be values of compassion and decency. When was the last time we could say that about the actions of a politician?
PS: Couldn’t help but notice that Megrahi was freed on Rosh Hodesh Elul.  (I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’…)

5 thoughts on “In Search of Compassion and Justice

  1. Thanks. I have been critical of MacAskill’s decision, but you’ve given me an alternative view. However — and I’m just askin’ — is this option always offered in Scottish prisons? If not — and it is not — then I think it was influenced by political calculations. While I feel it is not the state’s right to take a life, permitting end-of-life visits in prison would also have been a merciful option. So in disagreeing, let’s not forget that accountability and mercy are both aspects of justice.

  2. David, the Guardian article implies it is standard practice. Also, I think that if there are interests involved, I don’t see why the profits of the British should be held up because of principles about “life in prison”.

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