Marie was clearly a good person. She was upset at the lack of support she received from the bureaucracy and the fact that they had no real plan to deal with school violence. (Each year, pupils attack slightly more than four percent of French teachers.) Since the incident, there had been a gang rape and other episodes of violence at the school where she had taught, but her former pupils told her that life continued as if nothing had happened.

In such circumstances, I was alarmed but not altogether surprised to read that Marie, referring to the culprits”€™ current trial, did not want them to be locked up but rather that they should receive a punishment “€œso that they understand.”€

Understand what, precisely? That hitting a defenseless woman in the face ten times with a knuckleduster isn”€™t a nice thing to do? But they understood this already, only too well: It was precisely their understanding that impelled them to do it. What they lacked was not understanding of their inaction’s consequences for others but something much, much deeper, something that is unlikely to be taught, or at least learned, except by the passage of a very long time (and even then is not certain). 

Presumably Marie had in mind something such as psychoanalysis, perhaps mixed with a little compulsory social work or planting flowers in municipal flowerbeds. This is like trying to talk reason to Pol Pot at the apogee of his power, to get him to stand down by persuading him that what he was doing was wrong. 

Unfortunately, there will always be some very nasty people in the world, and not all of them will be deterred from carrying out nasty acts by whatever consequences they will suffer. Perfection is not of this world. The 16-year-old who attacked Marie might not have been rendered a good boy if he had feared the consequences of his act, but the fact that he did not (knowing the whole society to think like Marie”€”that is to say, sentimentally) made him more likely to act upon his most evil impulses. It is even possible that fear of consequences, by inhibiting him, would have made him a better person in the truly moral sense, for virtue and goodness are at least in part matters of habit, as every mother knows”€”or ought to know. 

Marie, like all the sentimentalists who confuse law with therapy, believes that firmness and cruelty are the same. This unwillingness or inability to make proper distinctions is a symptom of our time. It is a form of moral cowardice.



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