You’ve heard of the IKEA prison?
When I was seventeen, I went to the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program. It’s a six week program on a college campus for gifted high school students in different subject areas. The kids come from all across the state, and part of the joy is seeing suburb kids and city kids and country kids get to know each other. Actually this year GHP was only four weeks due to budget cuts, but that’s a different fish worth frying.
When I was twenty and twenty-one, I worked there as a resident assistant. When I was twenty-five, I taught there. It’s nerd camp, and it’s absolutely the greatest educational program I’ve ever been associated with.
It is magic.
My second year as an RA, I shepherded some very politically savvy young men. One night they all stayed up late in one dorm room, watching returns from the state’s gubernatorial primary with feverish excitement. Nerd camp. They were what we at GHP call SocStuds – Social Studies majors. They are always having outrageously erudite discussions with each other all over campus. And making out with the much cooler Communicative Arts majors in their spare time. At least the smart ones did that.
So when I hear Glenn Beck, who I grant you doesn’t really deserve the mention, comparing Norway’s Utoya camp to the Hitler Youth, and asking, “who does a camp for kids that’s all about politics?”, I already know the answer. I know what those kids look like in America, and I have faith that hyper-intelligent teenagers are similar the world over, and so the news from Norway just breaks my heart.
In another world, where life is built out of different fabrics, maybe there could be a punishment that could do justice to the murder of 76 people. I don’t know – maybe you strap a guy down to the gurney and you pull his psychic liver out, you wrench from him joy and heat and passion to make a new person. And it hurts like hell to do that to him – to take a piece of his soul like that. The good piece. The best piece. The goodness that’s buried deep down, or maybe the pride that’s right on the smug surface.
And at night you let that liver grow back. And in the morning you do it again.
And then when you have these 76 people, all shining and bright, all the best parts of him that he rejected, and the love he had that he forgot or ignored or never understood, you have them lay their hands on him and press and press harder and harder and they all press in and he’s pressed into some new shape, some new form, some better angel, or he’s pressed into nothing at all.
It still wouldn’t really be right – there is nothing imaginable that would be right, except maybe pulling a Superman and spinning the world in the other direction and getting those kids back and burning him out of the universe.
But I’m being fanciful and we all know the world does not work that way. We have not been given such a world. It is unfair. You can pick up a gun and you can shoot somebody, you can shoot everybody, and we can throw the book at you, we can torture you, we can kill you, but it doesn’t undo what you’ve done. Hell we could rehabilitate you and you could go on to save the world and it doesn’t undo what you’ve done. It does not sew those pieces back together. That’s not the world we have.
And so it doesn’t really matter if Anders Breivik gets put in Abu Ghraib or in this so-called IKEA prison. Does it?
When we want vengeance, when we want someone to suffer, what do we want that for?
Do we want it to send a message? Do we want someone to suffer so that others will look at that example and say, well, I was GOING to go kill 76 people, but now that I see that this shmuck’s going to get his fingernails pulled off with pliers, count me out?
The statistics aren’t there for the deterrent argument, and I don’t think logic helps us much either. It’s just as likely that Breivik would get off on his punishment, on anything we could do to him, on becoming a martyr. It’s just as likely that someone with dreams of killing a fresh 76 would further delight in such notoriety that torture or execution would bring. The thought of imprisonment might keep you and me from boosting our neighbor’s shit, but these people aren’t dealing the same deck of cards as you and I are.
Besides, I think when you get down to it, for you and for me, it’s not about deterrence either. It’s about the fact that we have a conscience, or a superego, or a morality that is differently developed from Breivik’s. We know that it’s not right to go out and kill people because you hate Muslims. We know that’s not what goodness is.
Some of us tend to differ on whether it’s goodness to go kill Muslims because “they hate our freedom,” but again: different fish.
So our anger is anger over another unfairness. We are saddled with these particular consciences, and other people are not. Other people have different moralities, for whatever reasons. Other people didn’t grow up with mom or dad or Jesus or Ronald Reagan or Mrs. Buckmaster or maybe they did and they still turned out bonkers.
And that sucks. Because here I am paying my taxes, and this jackass is getting paid under the table.
It’s unfair. You can be walking down the street minding your own business and a piano falls on you. You can follow all the rules and your kid gets killed at nerd camp.
So people are mad that Breivik’s going to get cushy surroundings. Because we want him to suffer. But why?
One of the great things about being a human, perhaps the greatest thing, is that no one can control our thoughts. Not even Meryl in The Manchurian Candidate, and if there’s anyone who could come close to total cerebral domination, it would have to be Meryl Streep.
But it’s one of the great themes, this idea that you can do whatever you want to my body, but you can’t break my spirit if I don’t want you to. You can cloud the hell out of my mind, you can keep me from being able to concentrate, and hey I bet you if I were tortured I’d fold like cheap lawn furniture and tell you anything you want to hear.
But I can’t make you love me. Right, Bonnie?
I can sit down at family dinner and think about how much I want to be out of there. I can walk down the street and think dirty thoughts about attractive people I pass.
I can break your heart or kill your kid and I can be not sorry about it and you can’t make me sorry. You just can’t.
Some people are going to be like Raskolnikov. They’re going to have their high-minded rationalizations for committing crimes, and then their minds are going to punish them. They’re going to drive them crazy with guilt, remorse, and the punishment society adds to that will just be an afterthought. But some people aren’t that way. They could be locked away forever or strapped to the chair and you just can’t make them suffer.
That’s unfair. That’s the world we have.
I think punishment keeps criminal elements from reentering society, and I think it should continue to do that, and I think for a small percentage of the population, societal punishment can lead to rehabilitation, and that’s wonderful. And for a majority it doesn’t, and that’s terrible in several ways, not the least of which is that it is in part our failure. And part of me wishes Norway would throw away the key when they put Breivik into IKEA, or that some higher power would reach down (“enter hand of God”) and toss him into that big IKEA in the sky (no, not Heaven – I mean let’s get real: have you ever been in IKEA for more than two hours? It gets old fast).
On the other hand, I have no way of knowing the content of his character after twenty-some years there. I know it will never restore the nerd camp magic, or the magic of those lives, that he so cruelly dispelled, and that’s an injustice that I accept as the world’s, and which I refuse to punish myself over, because it is not my fault. Or if there is a higher power who reigns over the celestial IKEA, I have no way of knowing why Breivik is allowed to live and 76 were not. And I can’t punish myself over that either.
Will Anders Breivik become someone who would be a contributing member to society? Maybe, if some vigilante doesn’t kill him first. Because that’s the freedom we all have, of course. We can fight fire with fire, and then deal with the burns we’ve received in turn.
I just can’t help but think the energy’s better spent trying to prevent new Breiviks from spawning. And I don’t tend to see that happening through punishment. I see it through education. For that matter, you may not be able to force Breivik to feel sorry for what he did, to feel the pain of his victims. But you, perhaps, could teach him to.
It’s not fair. It’s just all we have.