Last semester, I think it was, one of my students asked me what I thought about “나영이 사건” as an article topic for the campus English magazine for which students write articles in my journalistic writing course. If you haven’t heard about it — and you probably don’t live in Korea if you haven’t heard about it — “The Nayeong Incident” was a case in which a 57-year-old man raped a 9-year-old girl in a church. Brian in Jeollanamdo has the basics and some links, and all I can add to that is that there were a lot of variation in explanations floating around at the time. For example, one student said that 12 years is the maximum penalty for sexual assault in Korea (and that 5 years is more usual prison time); another said he “only got 12 years because he said he was drunk” whereas elsewhere the story reported was that he appealed on the grounds that he was drunk at the time.
(EDIT: If you’re easily disturbed, as one reader was, then you might consider giving this next paragraph a pass, as it discusses some graphic details of the case.)
(As a commented on Brian’s page notes: if he was sober enough to use a plunger to extract his semen from the child’s anus and vagina, he was sober enough to think through his actions and, say, decide not to rape and brutalize a child. Not that being drunk would be any kind of excuse, but wiping the kid down, trying to remove his DNA and fingerprints all indicate that he was sober enough to think in the long term in relation to his own life; his inability or refusal to consider her life is not the result of drinking, as much as him being a fucking monster. In other words, it’s an idiotic plea.)
But I’m not posting about this to sensationalize the news. This is a horrible event, and I feel for the child, whose intestines were wrecked and who now likely is in a horrible physical state, and will be for the rest of her life — even if she did recover mentally and emotionally.
That is horrible, but I’m posting about this because I think the reaction we see among people is interesting. For example, in my journalistic writing class, I asked students what they thought would be an appropriate punishment. They didn’t quite follow, so I asked them, “You think 12 years isn’t enough?”
They agreed, so I asked, “How about 15 years?”
Someone else said, “Twenty.”
“But won’t another person say, ‘Twenty years is not enough for such a crime?'”
They agreed, and one student said, “Life. He should be in prison for life.”
Then I asked, “What is the purpose of prison? Is it to prevent him repeating the crime, or to make him suffer? Is it revenge, or protection of other people?”
They were divided about that, so I asked the Russian student in class to talk about gulags a little bit. She did, and we went back to talking about prison and agreed that whether or not it is effective, the idea underlying prison — the model — is rehabilitation. Actually, we all pretty much agreed that the model is ineffective. You can’t detain a criminal with other criminals if you want to rehabilitate him. It makes no sense.
Then I asked, “So then, what should we do with him? I mean, what should Korean society do with this man?”
“Kill him!” said the student who’d brought it up, who’d been angry about it for a long time apparently from what she told me later.
“Ah, revenge,” I said. “He hurts her, her family kills him. What comes next?” After a pause of silence, I said, “His family kills her family. Her family’s relatives and friends kill his family. His family’s relatives and friends kill her family’s relatives and friends. And on we go. I don’t want to live in a world where that’s how we handle this sort of thing. We did that for thousands and thousands of years. That was how we lived pretty much as far back as there were humans. We didn’t just kill people for hurting people in our own group, we killed them just in case they might try it. See a stranger, think about killing him. After all, you never know whether he’s thinking of killing you first, right? Do you want to live in a world like that, to go back to that?”
“No,” they agreed. “That’s terrible,” said one student. And they talked about vendettas and violence and vigilantism and how none of that was particularly appealing to them. We even talked about Sympathy for Lady Vengeance a little, as it’s a pertinent film. (The lead character helps families of children like the nine-year-old girl to hunt down, brutally torture, and execute the pedophile who killed their own children. And the film’s logic and storytelling is such that by the end of the movie, most viewers are likely to great sympathy for her, and on some discomfiting level to find themselves approving of what she’s done.)
“But prison doesn’t work, right? Prison is supposed to fix him, right? And it won’t?”
They agreed that for a petty criminal, or even someone who committed murder as a crime of passion, prison could be rehabilitative. It’s possible. But they agreed that for someone like this guy, there’s a more fundamental brokenness, a malfunction. The man cannot be fixed. We can’t use the system as we understand it to deal with someone like him.
“So what should we do with him?” was the question I left them with. Then, I noted that we’d been talking philosophy for twenty minutes. But, I told them, “We’re not wasting our time. This is how good articles get written: everything starts with a question. My question here was, ‘If 12 years is not enough, what is? What should we do with someone like this?’ The question doesn’t assume that the status quo is the only or the right way. It asks a bigger question, and looks at the world for an answer.”
Looking at the world is the most important part, I think, once you have that facility for asking questions. Looking at the world, we can see a lot of interesting things.
We can see, for example, that the fact we’re horrified about this means we’ve come a long way. According to Steven Pinker, violence is at an all-time, global low. That’s right: with all the violent media in the world, with all that violent ideation that people engage in after seeing Hollywood films and a bouquet of CSI spinoffs and whole music stores filled with rap dedicated to the narrative of killing cops and everything else one might choose to find objectionable, we’re now less violent than we’ve been in all of human history.
Seriously. Listen to the man. But make sure you have time — it’s a longish video, even if it is worth every second, like so many videos at TED:
Just as Pinker points out, we disapprove of violence much more than people ever did in history, too. The public used to gather for hangings, disembowelments, drawing-and-quarterings, and gladiatorial combat. Any of those things would turn most of our stomachs now, but they were prim(at)e forms of entertainment in yesteryear!
The point here isn’t that things are perfect now. It’s that, as we continue to solve the problem of violence, we are beginning to find that the easier-to-solve cases are dried up. Most psychologically normal people are becoming increasingly less likely to engage in violent crime.
Which introduces a dual problem: there are still those people who are psychologically abnormal, who are likelier to engage in violence regardless of prevailing social attitudes and rules. It seems apparent some people will, like the child-rapist described above, continue to be monsters. For those people, no amount of socializing, shame, or other indirect methods will root out their propensity for violence. (And as my classmate from Clarion West and friend, Guy Immega has pointed out, the likelier it becomes that it’s a fundamental facet of their nature that explains why such individuals are the way they are, with the possibility looming up ahead of us that psychopathy might have some fundamentally genetic basis.)
But then there’s the other half of the conundrum, one played with in films like Kick-Ass and Sympathy for Lady Vengenance, which is that the rest of us, the “normals” (let’s simplify it, though really there are probably a spectrum of categories to talk about which we’d count as normal), for whom socialization and rules work. They’re much less violent than in the past, with the net effect that when we do arrive at the time and place where we know who’s a psychopath, an irremediable pedophile, or whatever, and can’t be fixed, we will be even less able to use violence against those individuals.
This isn’t an argument for eugenics. It’s not an argument for arming society in the hopes of the resultant “politeness” wiping out the psychopaths and monsters. It’s just the observation of an ironic dovetailing effect. The less violent society becomes, the more the naturally violent people stand out… and the less able we seem likely to be to deal with them in a way that will effectively insulate the “normal” majority from their violence.
Which is an interesting dilemma for SF. An interesting problem. Guy is already mining out that area, though, and I have other regions to tend to. But it does seem like one reason the next 30 years should be pretty interesting. As we start figuring out just how many things are genetic, we will start realizing some pretty uncomfortable things about ourselves, about civilization, about societies and how they work.
Darwin’s shockwave trembles on through the world, you see.