the quality of mercy these days

This Roman Polanski business is bothering me. Not that he’s been arrested — I meant what I said in the morning roundup: arresting him was the right thing to do, and I’m glad it happened.

But I’m bothered by those who are on my side (if I have to have a side). There are quite a lot of people expressing the sentiment that “RT @someguy: Polanski is a rapist and he belongs in prison. FULL STOP.” I think they’re basically right. But they’re making a terrible error by being so self-satisfied about it. When we punish people, it’s nothing to celebrate. We should perhaps make allowances for those personally affected by the misdeeds of the party that is to be punished. But when the rest of us glory in it, 140 smug characters at a time, we have no excuse. God, but it’s bloodthirsty. This is an old man who will be punished for an old crime, and it’s not going to do anybody any good, not really. It’s just that it has to be done.

When I was writing that roundup I came across the story of a teenager who had just been sentenced for the murder of two people. The young man went into a house to steal and came across a gun. He loaded it, and it appears that he then discharged it into the head of a teenage boy who was sleeping on the living room couch. He then fled, but returned to collect a jacket he had lost. He encountered the boy’s mother, who was on the phone with the police, and he shot her in the ear at close range.

I left that out of the roundup — I take pride in omitting crime stories with a sensationally terrifying element. But can you imagine a crime more casually horrible? Still, how could anyone picture the coming decades of that boy’s life in prison and feel anything but crushing sadness?

By saying this I don’t imply that I’m above what I’m decrying — in that morning roundup I took the Polanski case and spun it into a framing device that traded on crass moralism, and I did it simply because I wanted a punchy intro that would let me get to bed on time. But I, and everyone else, should probably show a little more restraint before reveling in the misfortune of the guilty. I hope that we punish people because it serves a larger purpose; it’s the means by which we recommit ourselves to a system that has just failed us. For that reason it’s a hopeful but fundamentally melancholy act. If it feels otherwise, something is wrong.

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