Saturday, 31 July 2010
Not in my name
Mixed feelings over the reported case of Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer, making a compensation claim against the prison where he had boiling water poured over him by one fellow prisoner, then more recently, had his throat slashed by, I assume, another.
I thought I had worked out my own feelings in comparable cases. If anyone harmed my children, I supposed, I would personally want to inflict as much pain on the guilty man as I could. I would want to kill him by degrees. A kneecap here, a kneecap there, and so on. All the same, I supposed - not actually being in a passion, only imagining it - the best thing would be for someone to stop me, lead me away, and argue for due process of law, so that my passion or thirst for revenge (a thirst that is perfectly natural in a passion) might be channelled into a course that was socially and collectively responsible, because if we don't have such due process, I reasoned, anyone is free to do whatever their intense emotions drive them to do.
So it is, I thought, with war crimes. Some are crimes of passion or revenge that are understandable but nevertheless illegal and punishable. Others are deliberate and carefully calculated acts for which the punishment should be more severe. In the case of my own passion for revenge whoever prevented me from carrying out that revenge would be performing more than a public service (and doing me a favour), but - and it seems quite a big important step, a potential category change, putting it this way - committing a virtuous act.
In Huntley's case he murdered two young girls who had trusted him because, as caretaker of their school, he was in a position of trust with them. If they were my children I would in my passion have murdered him.
It was always likely that, once in prison, Huntley would be assaulted for various reasons. He must have known that, as would the prison authorities, as would we. But two of these assaults would have been regarded as serious crimes outside the prison and now he is seeking compensation.
The man who poured boiling water over Huntley and the man who cut his throat did not do so 'in my name'. Why would they? My name means nothing to them. The two assailants might very well have thought they were, however, doing it somebody's name - in the name of the parents, or, less likely, of society at large. Though it is just as likely that they did what they did because they regarded Huntley with abhorrence - a complex emotion - and so felt justified in administering what they regarded as justice. It is even possible that they enjoy the act of assault, and this particular act seemed to justify them. I don't know
Official justice, unofficial justice - it is hard to balance the two. Some people might be annoyed because Huntley is complaining about being assaulted at all. Hanging's too good for him, they might well think. Others are annoyed because Huntley is going through the law to obtain compensation. The mother of one of the children resents it because the parents received no compensation for the death of their children. She wants 'a level playing field'.
I am not sure that receiving compensation for the murder of one's child would ever constitute a level playing field or that it was at all possible to think of level playing fields in terms of monetary compensation, though I realise that people do, even if only because money is a symbol of some sort - sometimes the only available symbol.
The 'he deserves it' line disturbs me, because that makes a nonsense of law, of prison and of sentences. Due process has contractual force and unofficial punishment breaks that contract. 'My name' is elevated over 'our mutual name'.
Huntley's claim for financial compensation is also disturbing because the irony of a child murderer appealing to law stretches one's belief in the moral value of contracts. He might, of course, be using the financial course in order to prevent further physical assault - as an incentive to the screws to be more vigilant to his vulnerability, and it might in fact be his only recourse.
No-one here is acting in my name. But I, along with my name, seem to be not quite dissociated from the matter. It stirs feelings.
It is just that - like all human matters - the affair is a great deal more complex than it appears and has hung round my head as I was applying coats of paint to the new book-case, finishing checking the Márai proofs, beginning to redraft the Krasznahorkai text and arguing about politics with a friend by way of emails.
The sickening smell of satin gloss paint remains with me.