The Nobility in Forgiving

In the early 1990s. something terrible happened in the state of California in the U.S.

A predator killed a teen aged girl in a brutal manner. Since this column may be read by people of all ages, we will not get into the details.

The father of the girl went through all kinds of emotions. Most importantly, he wanted to do something that would prevent anything like the incident happening to anyone else. He had the best of intentions.

This was the beginning of the “Three Strikes” movement, a movement that snowballed into a magnitude that no one had imagined. It led to the laws of the state being amended. A sentence of 25 years in prison was mandated for anyone apprehended for any kind of transgression of the law a third time.

New prisons had to be built. New officers had to be recruited. Billions of dollars went into preventing incidents of the kind that had happened from recurring.

The situation became so bizarre that a homeless, hungry man was sent to 25 years in prison when he stole a pizza from a convenience store. That was his third confrontation with the law.

Many countries in the world follow the principle of retributive justice. People who cross the limits must be punished. They must be punished in a way that will act as a lesson to others.

Does retributive justice really work?

Over 25 years have passed since the “Three Strikes” law was passed in California. As already mentioned, billions were invested.

The outcomes tell a sad story. Crime rate in California has not come down. In fact, California’s crime rate is several times that of states that have no parallel to the Californian law.

The Scandinavian countries largely follow the principle of reformative justice. Time magazine once published the “prison cell” of the young man who killed 78 people. It resembled a star-hotel room more than it resembled a prison cell. A TV was fixed to the wall. So was a laptop computer. The man had access to a separate bathroom. Since he would be isolated to prevent other inmates from attacking him, he had a fitness room of his own. All the guards in the high security facility are women. None of them carry guns. Since Norway does not have the death penalty and the maximum incarceration for “life imprisonment” is 21 years, the man will walk out when he turns 42. He is likely to live another 40 years. The state wants him to be a citizen who can take care of himself. Therefore, he will be trained in some skill through which he can make a dignified living. That is reformative justice for you.

This column is not about the means of dealing with those who breach the law.

At about the same time that the incident in California occurred, a similar incident happened in a small town in Canada.

What was the reaction of the parents of the teenager who was killed?

Even before the assailant had been apprehended, the parents announced that they had forgiven whoever had perpetrated the horrendous act.

It is truly extraordinary for the mother of a teenager who has just been killed to forgive the assailant. Where does such kindness, such nobility, such forgiveness come from?

It comes from a deep faith. It is difficult to see this as a normal “human” reaction. Something beyond our capacity to reason out is at work here.

Or consider the case of a teenager who, in an inebriated condition, hit a boy fatally injuring the latter. The mother of the boy is informed and arrives on the scene. Two ambulances arrive, one to take the mortally wounded boy, and the other to take the young man responsible for the accident. The ambulances are close to one another. The mother approaches the ambulances and pleads with the officer to be kind with “him.” The officer thinks she is referring to her child and reassures that everything possible will be done to save him. The mother responds: “No, Officer, I was not talking about my child. I was talking about the young man.” The Officer is too stunned to say anything.

Where does such extraordinary show of empathy, kindness, and forgiveness come from? Is it an ordinary human quality?

This is the season for celebration. Later this month is Thanksgiving Day. While we can observe these occasions with joy tempered with sobriety and a sense of proportion, we would do well to think deeper and learn to be kind, to be caring, to be loving, and to be forgiving.

These would lift us to a different plane altogether. We would transcend our limitations and be able to observe the light that shines in each one of us.

It is worth remembering what the Mahatma said: “An eye for an eye would leave the whole world blind.”

Yours in gratitude,

Dilshad and Krishna




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