by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Presidential elections provide many “litmus tests” by which we define the candidates, some valid and some ridiculous. During the 2008 election, the “War on Terror” and questions about then-Senator Obama’s religious beliefs and patriotism were upstaged by the collapse of the United States’ financial system. If that had not happened, the election might have turned out differently, but there is no way to know for sure. As we enter the 2012 presidential campaign season, the death penalty has taken center stage, with each of the Republican candidates trying to show how tough he or she is on crime based on the number of death row inmates executed in their respective states. In 1988, Michael Dukakis lost the election to George H. W. Bush during a debate in which a questioner asked Governor Dukakis whether he would seek the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife, Kitty. Dukakis unemotionally said that he opposed the death penalty, always had, always would; he didn’t even scold the questioner for throwing a sucker punch. His lack of outrage, which came across as a lack of empathy for those who had lost loved ones to vicious crimes, turned the tide in his bid for the presidency. This is because significantly more Americans (greater than 60% at present) favor the death penalty than those who oppose it. The idea of justice based on revenge has greater appeal than the Christian notions of forgiveness, rehabilitation, and turning the other cheek.
During the last two decades, support for the death penalty has dropped somewhat, likely because of advances in forensic science which have exonerated a number of death row inmates. In other words, an unknown number of people have been imprisoned and executed for crimes they did not commit, and an equal number of criminals literally got away with murder. It is hard to see these wrongly-convicted people as “collateral damage” in the so-called war on crime: they are tragic victims for whom there will never be justice nor will there be revenge. It would be nice if presidential candidates could have a more nuanced and thoughtful discussion of whether and when to execute someone, but this level of discourse cannot fit into a “tweet” or sound-bite.
People commit heinous crimes for many reasons: revenge, greed, jealousy, and insanity among the most common. Some murders happen without any forethought: they are crimes of passion or anger. Others happen because of psychoses such as schizophrenia and delusions. Crime and Punishment, by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is a compelling analysis of pre-meditated murder and the type of soul-sickness which can drive one to kill another. In the story, a man, believing himself to be exempt from laws and social norms, decides to commit a murder. His conscience puts up a good fight but eventually loses ground to perceived messages, signs, and signals which the man uses to justify the crime. One murder turns into two when the man is caught in the act by the first victim’s slow-witted sister. The rest of the story concerns the aftermath: the man, who had thought himself somehow superior to everyone else and not bound by their laws, lives in a state of tormented guilt and paranoia about his crimes until he comes to understand that only by confessing and going to prison will he be set free.
The first part of the story, in which an alienated and disturbed person kills out of a sense of self-righteousness, is all too familiar. Notorious examples include Jared Lee Loughner’s killing spree aimed at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s assault on Columbine High School, and Sueng-Hui Cho’s massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Each of these men was isolated and angry, and felt completely justified in gunning down innocent victims. Loughner has been diagnosed as schizophrenic; but Cho, Harris, and Klebold committed suicide rather than surrender, so their diagnoses will never be completely made. It is clear that mental illnesses and possible personality disorders blinded these young men to the reality that killing others was a far greater crime than any wrong that had been done to them. If he is ever considered fit to stand trial, Jared Loughner could face the death penalty. If convicted and executed, would justice truly be served?
Crime and Punishment, is an intricate examination of the interplay between alienation and empathy with which people struggle during desperate times. The main character of Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, lives in miserable poverty. His squalid living conditions as well as the filth and decay of St. Petersburg’s slums have left him alienated from society. To him, life seems meaningless and without justice. As a way of coping Raskolnikov engages in denial, telling himself he is superior in every way to the filthy wretches surrounding him, even though his own clothes are in tatters, and he is always hungry, owes money everywhere, and has pawned everything of value that he owns. Raskolnikov, like many of his neighbors, harbors a grudge against the local pawnbroker because of her miserliness and abusive treatment of her mentally challenged sister. There is also a whispered hint of anti-Semitism in discussions about her. Raskolnikov overhears someone say that the world would be better off if someone would kill the pawnbroker and give her money to the poor; and decides in that instant that it is he who must right this particular wrong in the name of social justice.
While planning the murder, Raskolnikov wrestles with his conscience, his self-respect, and his resentments. Unlike Loughner, Harris, Klebold, and Cho, Raskolnikov knows that murder is wrong even though his nihilism tells him that life is meaningless and that there is no God. While his behavior and thoughts suggest that he suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, he is clearly rational. After the murders, Raskolnikov’s superiority complex falls away leaving him even more alienated than before. Moreover, the guilt over his brutal killing of the women eats away at his soul and his life becomes punishment until he is redeemed by the power of selfless love and forgiveness.
Dostoyevsky drew from many of his own life experiences in the writing of Crime and Punishment: he lived in St. Petersburg and often walked the slums, he spent time doing hard labor in Siberia for being part of a movement to end serfdom, and he struggled with gambling debts for most of his life. What is interesting is that his political views changed from decidedly socialist to more traditional and nationalistic while serving his time in the prison camp. At the same time, Dostoyevsky moved away from nihilism and became an orthodox Christian. These conversions did not, apparently, make him believe that capital punishment was appropriate for heinous crimes. If Crime and Punishment is a reflection of his philosophy, then it seems he believed that repentance and confession could absolve one of sin; and that forgiveness would heal the families and friends of crime victims to a greater extent than revenge.
Dostoyevsky was fascinated by the idea of how to live with oneself while carrying the overwhelming burden of guilt from having killed another human being, and that belief in God was not a requirement for having a conscience. He also sought to understand how one’s living conditions and social status could strengthen one’s innate character defects and lead to deluded thinking. In other words, guilt and responsibility inhabit a spectrum ranging from insanity to inhumanity. Raskolnikov was somewhere in the middle: he had to commit the murders in order to discover his conscience and that was the greatest punishment. We could, therefore, interpret Crime and Punishment to mean that having a conscience is proof that God exists because, in the end, Raskolnikov admits his guilt, begs forgiveness, humbly accepts his punishment, and is thereby saved.
Almost everyone has an untested opinion about capital punishment because most of us are fortunate enough not to be touched by violent crime. I, myself, am opposed to the death penalty, but if the unthinkable happened to one of my children or to my husband I might feel differently. Similarly, a life-long death penalty advocate could change his views if a loved one was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The lessons I take away from Crime and Punishment are that often the greatest punishment is having to live with guilt, that the line between rationality and mental illness can be quite blurry and is easily influenced by environment and heredity, and that we – as a society – owe it to ourselves to be sparing in our use of execution as punishment, lest we lose our humanity in the pursuit of justice.
Copyright 2011 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved