Punishing Agenda of the Anti-Punishment Movement
by Ilana Mercer
On November 29, 2019, a man now called the London Bridge terrorist slaughtered British student Jack Merritt. While the perpetrator has been named after a famous London landmark, his victim has been all but forgotten. The killer’s family was quick to condemn the London Bridge terrorist’s actions. The family of his victim—not so much. David Merritt, the late lad’s dad, criticized those who would like to see that killer and his ilk spend their lives in a prison cell. On December 2, Merritt the elder was already penning op-eds about clemency and leniency for criminals like the man who murdered his son. Such forgiveness would have been Jack’s wish, asserted Merritt senior, rather presumptuously—for how can the living speak for the dead?
David Merritt then proceeded to minimize what was murder with malice aforethought, by dismissing what his son’s killer did as a “tragic incident.” An insight into the progressive mindset can be gleaned from what Mr. Merritt wrote:
“If Jack could comment on his death – and the tragic incident on Friday 29 November – he would be livid. We would see him ticking it over in his mind before a word was uttered between us. Jack would understand the political timing with visceral clarity.
He would be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against. … What Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Doc Martens.
That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences … Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge.” [Emphasis added.]
Anti-punishment ideologues like Merritt, incorrectly and condescendingly conflate punishment with “hate” and vengeance and justice with restitution and “rehabilitation.” They treat us to facile flimflam such as the notion that the desire for vengeance cannot become the foundation of jurisprudence. By this verbal manipulation, these ideologues disingenuously advance a definition of justice that precludes incarceration and instead equates that object with restitution and rehabilitation alone.
Compared to David Merritt’s woke sentiments, the family of the London-Bridge Killer was mundane in its proper and civilized expiation:
“We are saddened and shocked by what Usman has done,” said the family. “We totally condemn his actions and we wish to express our condolences to the families of the victims that have died and wish a speedy recovery to all of the injured.”
But there was apparently no need to apologize, Mr. and Mrs. Khan. Speaking for his dead son, David Merritt appears to have already made peace with Jack’s ripper.
In their extreme versions, anti-punishment ideologues like David Merritt often plump for complete penal abolition. Driven by parental and pedagogic progressivism, Jack, of blessed memory, had “devoted his energy to the purpose of a “pioneering program” called “Learning Together,” which aims “to bring students from university and prisons together to share their unique perspectives on justice.” The imperative to offer up young lives to this or the other manifestation of Moloch is a progressive impulse.
If young Merritt’s murder proves anything it is that Cambridge University’s social-justice outreach, “Learning Together,” is a costly indulgence, as Jack was murdered on the job. More generally, the movement for restorative justice holds that problems plaguing the criminal justice system are reason enough to abolish it. Oddly, the movement’s position is starkly utilitarian, and bereft of principle. Incarceration, assert proponents of “no-fault” forgiveness, doesn’t reduce rates of re-offense and doesn’t bring back the dead. Ergo, abolish it we must and heal the criminal in the community. After all, responsibility for individual evil actions lies really with “society.” Justice, say the activists, is therefore best sought by a redistribution of wealth and resources.
But, contrary to such pinko propaganda, our prisons aren’t loaded with choir boys. Usman Khan was no victim of the system (although he claimed to have been fat-shamed or bullied for nurturing a prison paunch). Rather, it was Jack Merritt who was the victim of a system that had automatically released a man with murder on his mind on a kind of meritless-reprieve scheme, and despite the man’s vow to do violence. When just a teen, the killer plotted to attack the London Stock Exchange. He then fooled those around him by feigning remorse and a desire to reintegrate into British society.
From the dizzying heights of Platonic theorizing, libertarian anti-incarceration theorists point out, quite correctly, that crimes are committed against individuals and not against the amorphous entity called “society.” Solutions, they say, should, therefore, focus on making criminals pay restitution to their victims. Although I would not argue against compelling criminals to do penance shaped by their victims, some libertarian anarchists want to see punishment replaced by a system of financial restitution. But in cases (and there are many) where criminals can’t remotely repay victims for the harm done (especially in violent crimes), this means the consequences to the criminal won’t be remotely proportionate. In effect, by rejecting proportionate punishment for what is usually disproportionately paltry “restitution,” libertarian abolitionists are endorsing systematic injustice.
At least among libertarians, the cause du jour should not be to reduce the involvement of the state at any costs, if it means freeing guilty offenders. Rather, it should be to reduce the prison population by freeing innocent people whose activities, lawful by natural-law standards, the state has criminalized.
Whether punishment makes people feel good, whether it reforms the criminal or safeguards the public is immaterial, although I would argue that a society with a moral code is safer in the long run than one without it. Here on terra firma, the prosaic fact is, however, that when more dangerous offenders are incarcerated, fewer innocent individuals suffer. Conversely, when fewer violent criminals are apprehended, more innocent individuals are harmed. If innocent individuals are incarcerated—a horrible thing against which jurist William Blackstone railed, in 1769, saying “the law holds that it is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that 1 innocent person be convicted”—they (and not “society”) are harmed.
Punishment is a public declaration of moral standards. It is an extension of natural law. Descend into the anti-incarceration activist’s amoral abyss, and you abolish the very fabric of our ethical tradition. Fortunately, David Merritt’s meritless advocacy for a man who swore to murder again is mute. The killer was dispatched, his descent into hell hastened by the City of London’s police force.
Ilana Mercer has been writing a weekly, paleolibertarian column since 1999. She’s the author of Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa (2011) & The Trump Revolution: The Donald’s Creative Destruction Deconstructed” (June, 2016). She’s on Twitter, Facebook & Gab. Latest on YouTube: “How Democracy Made Us Dumb