Must We Employ Barbarism to Contain Barbarism?

April 29, 1994|By ANDREW B. SCHMOOKLER

BROADWAY, VIRGINIA. — The two-part story about the Singapore caning raises some difficult questions about our hopes that the progress of civilization might lift us out of barbarism.

The first part of the story was the news that the authorities in Singapore intend to flay an American youth using a method that makes flesh split and leaves a life-long scar. The second part was that more Americans raised their voices to support this judicial corporal assault than to protest it.

Unlike many of my liberal-minded friends, I was not shocked by the public outcry in America. I do talk radio in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, and when we did a program some months ago on ''What should we do about crime?'' the callers gave me a glimpse of the violent rage many Americans feel about the current plague of crime in this country. One not atypical caller proposed that we emulate the Saudis who, he said, mete out swift and sure punishment on the bodies of criminals corresponding with their offenses: They hack off the hands of thieves, the testicles of rapists, the heads of murderers.

An eye for an eye, Hammurabi said, more than 3,000 years ago, appropriating the passion for vengeance from private parties to the state. Have we made no progress since then, troubled liberals are asking: Is not the idea that society must speak to its deviants in the language of violence a throwback to a more barbaric time?

Why are citizens of this free and democratic country looking admiringly at repressive dictatorships like Singapore and Saudi Arabia? The answer, of course, is that their streets are safe and ours are not. While they practice barbaric punishments on the flesh of their offenders, here it is our barbaric offenders who increasingly can dictate the terms of life across a widening swath of the American landscape. If the choice is between barbaric order and barbaric disorder, many Americans are saying, we'll take the order -- even if heads must roll.

Is there no better option than these alternate forms of barbarism? There was supposed to be. That was the premise of our liberal democracy, in which people would be trusted with liberty, and the premise also of our liberal correctional policies, in which wrong-doers would be treated with care and rehabilitated toward the path of right. The liberal approach seems to many today, however, to be leading America not toward the humane order that was envisioned but toward a Mad Max barbarism.

One of my callers, a few months ago, said that America now faces a war between the law-abiding citizens and the criminals, but the law-abiding will have to start waging it as a war, he said, if they want to win.

War represents the triumph of barbarism over the better possibilities of our humanity. Gandhi always sought a non-violent way of dealing with adversaries, a way of calling forth the opponent's higher self. Likewise, the liberal approach to crime has sought to come from a car- ing rather than vengeful place, to elevate rather than injure the criminal. Gandhi eventually had to concede that there are some, such as Hitler, whose higher self is unreachable, and who can thus be dealt with only by force.

Similarly, liberal American criminology has discovered that one cannot rehabilitate someone who has not been habilitated in the first place. Perhaps only by waging war against them can we protect ourselves from those youths roaming our streets for whom life is without value, in whom the idea of right and wrong has never taken root.

Must we resign ourselves to the idea that order can be achieved only by violence and coercion? Must we employ barbarism to contain barbarism? Perhaps for now but not forever. This is where a liberal vision may see more deeply than the conservative.

Several of my callers in conservative Virginia saw the roots of our contemporary crime problem in the failure of the family to instill discipline: Spare the rod and spoil the child, they maintained. Surely they are right in thinking that order has roots in the upbringing of our children. But it is a major error to believe that order can come only -- or even best -- out of the caning rod.

I know dozens of children -- my own among them -- who have

been disciplined without violence and who will not be contributing to the savagery of our streets. Those who terrorize their neighborhoods have not been spoiled by a surfeit of nurturing attention. Their barbarism grows out of the barbarism into which most of them were born: from families, communities and a society that fail to provide all our children with the care necessary to nurture their decency and humanity. Bleeding hearts may misapply the approach of caring in some instances; but our world provides plenty of instances where the problem remains a lack of care.

That a social order requires the whip to sustain it is not, as the conservatives believe, an indictment of human nature. It is, rather, testimony to an enduring barbarism embedded in the order that must be maintained -- whether it is a barbarism of neglect or one of coercion and re- pression.

In the world as it is, a barbaric order may be all that is possible. Given that our world creates monsters, there will be Hitlers to fight and criminals to strike down. But the fact that our civilization still has one foot in barbarism is no reason to give up on the quest for a truly humane social order. Civilization as it is does not reveal all that a human society can become.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.''

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