It may well be that there are no viably prudent responses against the North Korean regime to sufficiently punish them for their apprehension, detainment, and murder of American student Otto Warmbier. But such a concession to realism over justice does not invalidate the morality of the retributive instinct. It remains. And it remains deeply Christian.
Society—including that of the global order—is justly ordered when each receives their due. Criminal acts disturb this just order by taking from others what is owed to them. Order is (approximately) restored by punishing the wrongdoer, making him pay a price proportionate to the harm he has done, and thereby vindicating the victim. This is the purpose of retribution. Retribution ranges in form, depending on the offense, from the simple expression of opprobrium to restraint, including lethal force.
Moreover, in the face of a sufficiently grave injustice, rage is the morally appropriate response. Rage is not only appropriate, it is probably also necessary: “hard-favored rage,” suggested the Bard, registers the wrongdoing and prepares us for the heavy task of “stiffening our sinews and summoning up our blood” to respond. One can quibble with whether “rage” is the right word. I employ it because it is a word worth employing. Anger is too pedestrian a description for the emotional response appropriate to, say, Auschwitz, or the homodor, or My Lai, or against those who missilize planes full of the innocent. Or against those who detain and murder a student for doing, if anything at all, nothing worse than removing a poster.
Retribution is a public work—it is distinguished from revenge, which is the satisfaction of private ends. Retribution is the primary purpose of punishment. There are those in the Christian community (and outside it) who want to promote rehabilitation of the criminal as the primary purpose of punishment. This is an undoubted good, and one to be pursued. But it is among the secondary (along with deterrence and protection), not primary, purposes of punishment.
This is important for a trio of reasons. First, the secondary purposes of punishment may or may not occur—they are not entirely up to us. But punishment—just punishment, to be clear—is not something which may or may not retribute evil—retribution is simply what punishment already is. Second, without punishment, evil cannot be retributed. There may be other ways of rehabilitating a wrongdoer, but there’s only one way to retribute their crimes. Lastly, just punishment simply doesn’t need secondary warrants—it is a good in and of itself.
To divide the possible goods of punishment into primary and secondary purposes is not to insist on a great distance between them. In fact, rehabilitation is very often closely aligned with retribution. This is because to punish someone too lightly sometimes results not just in the abandonment of justice but also of mercy. Why?
Here I grapple here with that part of the Summa in which Thomas Aquinas considers whether it is lawful to kill a sinner. At one point he suggests that a human being, by willfully participating in the irrational act of sinning, exiles himself from the order of reason, thereby falling away from human dignity. In such a state, a man is little different than an animal. Kim Jung-un and the other thugs who run (that is, run down) North Korea give us “Exhibit A.” As I take note of their brutality, I find myself advocating for the existence of hell. I take hell to be that place where God is known but refused worship. That’s to say, from the perspective of the human soul, hell is absolute loss; a condition in which one—by their own choosing—has been rendered finally irredeemable.
Of course, even if I’ve got this right, I cannot (and neither can you) know with any certainty which of my fellow sinners are, in fact, beyond moral retrieval. And so, I continue to love them and to hope for the possibility that God’s love for them might yet prevail. Here’s where retributive punishment comes back into view alongside rehabilitation: when a heart is very hard it may well take a lot to shatter it. The “poor” are blessed not because of their poverty but because in their impoverishment they are convinced of their lack of self-sufficiency. They know they need a Rescuer. When nothing else will, there is hope the sight of the gallows will, finally, redeem the heart of him thought irredeemable.
Who knows? Regardless, on the question of punishment this has little impact. We do not punish solely to redeem. In fact, to suggest so would create the moral absurdity that there is no point in punishing those who truly are irredeemable. The primary task of punishment, in the first degree, is to requite evil. Deterrence, protection, and rehabilitation are auxiliary benefits.
Caution abounds. I think here of Jean Elshtain’s unease at the prospect of the loss of moral memory in the face of political evil. This fear helped to keep the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on her working mind. She lamented what she took to be our dwindling capacity for moral repugnance; she feared that with the distance of time many of us would forget what that day was really like. “We shouldn’t,” she warned, “It was just as bad as we remember it. Our emotions at the time were not extreme: They were appropriate to the horror. Anger remains an appropriate feeling.” But she feared as well the human capacity for undomesticated vengeance. She only had to recall the American “exterminationalist rhetoric” of the 1940’s endorsing a policy of annihilation of the Japanese to know that the martial spark, once fanned, can set the whole world alight, consuming everything in its bloodlust.
But it needn’t be this way. We can punish well and within limits. Whether there are options to do so against North Korea is another issue. But to desire it is right.
Marc LiVecche is managing editor at Providence.
Photo Credit: Screenshot from video of Otto Warmbier confessing after his arrest in North Korea.