Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The wrong rights

Sometimes, especially in public discourse, certain words seem to lose all meaning beyond a vague evocation of some sort of goodness or badness. ‘Rights’ is one of those words.

I have no strong opinions about whether Philip Lawrence’s murderer, Learco Chindamo, should be deported to his native Italy once he’s served his prison sentence. What I don’t understand is the use of ‘rights’ prevalent in the media outrage.

Assorted politicians and pundits are talking about how the rights of the victim aren’t being respected. Mr Lawrence’s widow, Frances, has expressed this view as well.

I have no doubt that it must be a real body blow, even this long after the event, to be told that what matters in the tribunal ruling is the “right to family life” of the man who took that same right away from you. But which of the Lawrence family’s rights are being threatened by the no-deportation ruling?

The right to have one’s relative’s murderer deported following release from prison? No. Had Chindamo been British-born, deportation wouldn’t enter anybody’s head.

The right to have any foreign-born murderers of one’s relatives deported following release from prison? No. Had the Chindamo family (who moved here when he was six) chosen to become naturalised UK citizens, this issue wouldn’t arise.

The right to have any foreign-born murderers of one’s relatives who had not taken the opportunity to become UK citizens deported following release from prison? But this is too convoluted and hedged to have any coherent moral force as a right that somebody could have.

More to the point, all three of these proposals assume that victims of crime (or their relatives) should have not just the right to be heard by the authorities, not just the right to have the due process of law operate and not just the right to be kept informed about the progress of a case, but the right to have a say over sentencing.

Victims shouldn’t have that right. The whole point of a system of justice is that an offence against one of us is an offence against all of us, and we deal with criminals collectively through the institutions of the police, the courts and the prisons. It beats mob rule on both efficiency and fairness – and it has to be impartial and not driven by emotion. No doubt that can come across as uncaring to some victims, but that’s the price we pay for due process.

Now, of course, no victim of crime has any obligation to forgive, however repentant the criminal might be. But we wouldn’t be talking about this at all if Frances Lawrence had forgiven Chindamo and said that he shouldn’t be deported.

This is all very easy for me to say; what if it had been a member of my family killed? Well, of course I can’t know how I’d feel, but I’d guess that I wouldn’t want him deported. I wouldn’t want him to rot in jail his whole life. What I’d want is to personally wring the little bastard’s neck.

That might be satisfying, but deeply unjust.

No comments: