Tim Corballis: Beyond Punishment?
Beyond Punishment? A Response To The Graeme Burton Killing
The crimes of parolee Graeme Burton have drawn a predictable set of responses, centring on a call from the usual suspects for a more heavily retributive justice system. Doesn’t the fact that debate has been limited to a small range of questions – should the parole system be overhauled, should ‘life mean life’ etc. – indicate the paucity of our public thinking on issues of crime and culture?
The debate over how to discipline individual violent offenders has entirely replaced any discredited ‘liberal’ response to this sort of tragedy: that we should understand the social or economic hardships of the perpetrator, and so on. Perhaps we shouldn’t mourn the passing of some of the more simplistic versions of this. And yes, there is nothing wrong with a dispassionate review of the parole system. However, the silence from those who do not wish simply to call for a strengthened culture of vengeance only serves to amplify the voices of those who do.
Though a nuanced, economically-oriented version of the ‘liberal’ response might still be argued (we should think about the economic factors behind much of our crime) I won’t argue it in depth here. Instead, by way of a digression into film, I want to consider how we might begin to frame a properly ‘cultural’ response.
Reading the newspaper reports of the killing of Karl Paul Kuchenbecker and subsequent shootout, it was hard not to be reminded of the David Grey killings in Aramoana in 1990, if only because of Duncan Sarkies’s recent film, Out of the Blue. If it is hard to respond to actual events of this nature, it is even harder – though of course, less urgent – to know how to respond to their retelling, years after the fact. Some viewers of the film of my aquaintaince shared with me an initial bafflement about it: why was this film made? What are we being told that we didn’t already know?
In answer, two scenes in the film stand out: firstly, the David Grey character’s complaints, in a hunting shop (and approved by the gun salesman), about ‘incompetents’; and secondly, the lingering shot of members of the armed offenders squad after they have killed Grey.
The first scene suggests a fixation on superiority and judgement, an ominous desire (taking place as it does surrounded by weapons) to sort out and discipline the idiots of the world. The second scene leaves a powerful visual impression: the armed offenders squad snipers, with black-up on their faces and camouflage gear, look like Grey. We have witnessed Grey’s horrific acts at some length, only to see him killed by men who, at least on the surface, share something with him.
If we guess something about Grey – or the Grey character in the film – it is that his ideal workplace would have been precisely this: the armed offenders squad. The dangerous fantasy world of hardened, no-nonsense realism that does what it has to (in the face of ‘incompetents’) up to and including killing, in order to sort out the problems of the rest of us, is not far removed from military, police and security cultures that focus on ‘necessity’ to justify violence. In this light, it was hardly surprising to learn that Burton was allegedly in possession of weapons designed to mimic those, quite specifically, of the armed offenders squad.
The question here does not concern the psychology of the perpetrator, however much we might also investigate that. In addition, we should learn to ask the ‘cultural’ question: in what forms does such a culture exist in our society? It is to be found not only in military and security institutions and in the minds of those who fantasise about them – hints are to be found in ‘no nonsense’ attitudes throughout society, including the statements of those calling for harsher sentences. It is a masculine delusion, the ethos of boys’ school disciplinarians who secretly most admire the bullies amongst the pupils. If we are concerned about killers like Grey and Burton, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking about their punishment – we should be active in resisting whatever values are common to the criminals and their (would-be) punishers.