Unpunished or unchanged?

“The chemical massacre committed by the Syrian regime cannot go unpunished.” Most world leaders have said something similar to this statement by Laurent Fabius, foreign minister of France.  Is this the best way to frame the situation?

Punishment is recognized as an ineffective paradigm in many settings.

Educators want to change the behavior of children in the classroom, and have discovered that punishment does not motivate students – and may merely reflect the teacher’s emotions. “We punish in anger. We punish in frustration. We punish in an attempt to establish dominance,” writes Dr. Kathie Nunley. Criminologists have found that punishment, even the death penalty, has little  deterrence effect on violent crimes.  Business leadership studies are more nuanced, showing that expected negative consequences (“contingent punishment”) produces slight improvement – although not as great as positive consequences. Even those studies show the dramatic negative effect of unexpected consequences:  the kind of punishment that arrives when previous situations went unpunished.

Broaden the range of responses

Child with peeling skin from burns

This is one of the children filmed by the BBC in the aftermath of an incendiary bomb in northern Syria. The victims were left with napalm-like burns. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/23896617

The punishment paradigm often arises when the action in question is so dreadful that it evokes a lot of emotion – anger, frustration, outrage -and a strong sense of need to control a situation.  The awful videos and photos of the civilians, and especially the children, suffering burns from chemical weapons evoke those emotions.  It is right to feel them:  the many deaths, the severity of the injuries, and the attack on the innocent and vulnerable cry out for justice.  This cannot be allowed to happen again: it must be stopped.

Our visceral response is to stop this outrage by punishing the perpetrator.  Since ancient times, one definition of justice has been to inflict damage on the one who caused damage. (The biblical “eye-for-an-eye” approach actually reduced the level of retribution usually extracted at the time.)  The experience of centuries, though, is that each punishment is likely to be experienced as a new injury by the other party, one which requires another round of retribution and fuels the spiral of violence.  We are living this dynamic in wars and conflicts all around the globe, and it simmers

Vigil for Peace

I appreciated Pope Francis’ response.  On the one hand, his call for a world-wide interfaith day of prayer and fasting expressed the immensity of our horror at violence already done. The thousands who gathered in Rome and the hundreds of thousands who gathered around the world – even in Duluth – gave witness to the common feeling that the world could not tolerate the constant proliferation of violence, especially against innocent civilians.

On the other hand, the action provided just what is needed to stop a spiral of violence: reflection, a search for alternatives, a consideration of what actions are most likely to be effective in the long run.  Most of all, it opens the door for the Holy Spirit to guide hearts and minds into previously unseen paths which may lead to change.

The situation in Syria is dire.  Violence is widespread, and justified outrage is universal.  But perhaps, just perhaps, the nations of the world may be able to make a small change to turn the tide from immediate violence and seek other means.  The violence may go unpunished but it cannot go unchanged.

This will not be done in a day or a week, or even in a generation – as the smoldering emotions still visible in Northern Ireland demonstrate.  The truth Pope Pius XII spoke as World War II was about to commence are equally true now: “Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war.”

About Sister Edith

Benedictine sister of St. Scholastica Monastery, Duluth, Minnesota
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