Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crime and Punishment

This morning I put in my earbuds and listened to my favorite podcast from Chinesepod.com. The different levels and topics of discussion are quite varied, and at times the day's lesson can border on strange. It is, however, a really great tool for anyone learning Chinese and the hosts of the show always keep things interesting. Today I picked an upper intermediate level lesson which featured a dialogue between two Chinese people debating their opinions on capital punishment. The lesson was a bit above my level and rather difficult for me to follow, but it did seem appropriate after having finished "Crime and Punishment" last night.

I won't get into my position on the issue of capital punishment because it can be such an emotional issue (it was enough of a revelation to admit my feeling on "Twilight"). Furthermore, I don't fully know where I stand on the issue. Since living in China, my world has been turned upside when it comes to social and political issues. Here, capital punishment is handed out quite liberally and for a myriad of offenses (destroying cultural relics, corruption, drug trafficking, and, before 1997, panda killing, just to name a few). Individuals sentenced to death sometimes see their sentence reduced to life imprisonment, which I find can't help but find bizarre. News of death sentences is reported matter-of-factly on the news. I don't think you can hear anyone lobby for the rights or innocence of those convicted, but this should come as little surprise since the media here is state run. The public gets one side of the story, the government's side.

One case involving corruption, death, and the ultimate demise of two convicts has left a lingering impression on me. In 2008, several infants died due to the contamination of infant formula with the chemical melamine. Hundreds of thousands of babies and small children were sick due to adulterated milk or formula. We wouldn't allow Ping to drink milk for months, in fear of her getting sick. Seventeen people went to trial for their involvement in the scandal and two of them were executed in November 2009. Today, I couldn't help but wonder, are cases like this any more or less likely to happen in places that impose a death penalty? Do people who get caught up in greed and corruption, murder or assault, drugs and theft, feel any less likely to commit a crime if they know they could ultimately condemned to death for their transgressions?

Let's take things down a notch and put the death penalty aside. I've been thinking a lot about what prevents us from doing what society deems "wrong." Is it because of laws or our own morality? Is it due to our conscience or a fear of imprisonment (and, in some cases, death)? In "Crime and Punishment," RR believes his act isn't immoral and therefore he is above the law; he argues that the end justifies the means. He also believes it is the perfect crime, in the sense that it is justifiable, hence he will never be caught. As you can surmise, he was a tad off base with those assumptions, but how many other criminals think along these same lines?

Despite his crime, I was still able to sympathize with him. While I've never done anything horrendously illegal, I have certainly done things wrong in my life. We all have. I usually take the time to weigh the consequences of my actions. There were times, especially when I was a child, that my greatest fear was the punishment I faced if caught. As I get older, however, I find I am more influenced by my conscience and personal sense of morality. I think others are heavily influenced by religion; God is watching. Some people worry about their reputation, what people will say if their crime is revealed. In short, I think our sense of right and wrong is influenced by many factors, least of all the law. I also can't help but think, at least for myself, that a guilty conscience can be most brutal punishment of all.

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