Image by Gert Altmann from Pixabay

The way to deal with an offender, according to a custom from the Bemba (or Bemba speaking) people in Zambia, is by the people of the village encircling the perpetrator of wrongdoing and speaking of all the good he has done.

This story was originally attributed to a childhood memory (during the 1930s) of someone called Brian Sharpe, who later incorporated it into his social work thesis. I have been unable to establish whether this custom is factual or not, but even if it has to be assigned to the hall of legends, I find the underlying philosophy so wholesome, and one which aligns with a belief that I have held for a long time.

And that is, that those who commit crimes, especially the more heinous ones, are those who truly reflect the saying, “He is not in his right mind.”

I’m not referring to the opposite of left brained, but rather the extreme antithesis of healthy. And therefore, it is my belief that these people are in need of help and compassion, not punishment. It is not that long ago when those who suffered from what today is neatly labelled as some psychiatric disorder, were subjected to the harshest of draconian treatment.

Occasionally when I have expressed my view, it has, by and large, been met with vehement opposition. So it was with almost a sense of relief that I read the passage below, extracted from Anita Moorjani’s book, Dying To Be Me, in which she writes about her time before, during and after her NDE (near death experience). She was ravaged by cancer with lemon-sized tumours all over her body. After four years of suffering she died in hospital, only to return to life, where, within nine days, she recovered and was officially diagnosed as free of cancer. It’s a case well documented and something specialists from all over the world have had to accept as inexplicable in terms of present-day allopathic medicine.

What she experienced on the ‘other side’ was absolute unconditional love. Therefore, no judgement. It was in this enlightened state of mind that she returned to this life where she found it impossible to resume her old thinking patterns, including the separatist mentality.

As she puts it:

“…… So I found myself with nothing but compassion for all the criminals and terrorists in the world, as well as their victims. I understood in a way I never had before that for people to commit such acts, they must really be full of confusion, frustration, pain, and self-hatred. A self-actualised and happy individual would never carry out such deeds! People who cherish themselves are a joy to be around, and they only share their love unconditionally. In order to be capable of such crimes, someone had to be (emotionally) diseased – in fact, much like having cancer.

However, I saw that those who have this particular type of “mental” cancer are treated with contempt in our society, with little chance of receiving any practical help for their condition, which only reinforces their condition. By treating them in this way, we only allow the “cancer” in our society to grow. I could see that we haven’t created a society that promotes both mental and physical healing.
This all meant that I was no longer able to view the world in terms of “us” and “them”- that is, victims and perpetrators. There’s no “them”, it’s all “us.” We’re all One, products of our own creation, of all our thoughts, actions, and beliefs. Even perpetrators are victims of their own self-hatred and pain.”

If we are the products of our thoughts and beliefs, how do thoughts and beliefs arise? What contributes to their formulation? Surely self-hatred has to be learned, and learning takes place from one’s environment, be it people or circumstances.

Should we not be looking at the soil in which the seeds of crime flourish, instead of heavily focusing on attempting to deter crime in the form of retribution for offenders? The latter (which is clearly not effective) relies on fear, which never has long-lasting positive results.

How can we address crime prevention other than through the deployment of fear tactics? What can we add to or extract from the ‘soil’ to nurture self-worth and ultimately self-love? Commonly identified precursors to crime are poverty, trauma, substance abuse, and so on. But those too are symptoms of deeper underlying issues all of which stem from the many guises of fear, the opposing pole to love.

And when it’s too late for prevention, how can we promote healing while maintaining a steadfast belief in a cure, instead of a resignation to the prevalent belief of ‘no hope’, that dominates common narrative? – No hope for a permanent turnaround of the mindset and thus behaviour of ‘criminals’. Perhaps we should start with the labels assigned to wrong doers, as we have done with psychiatric disorders. The latter no longer inhabit the realms of lunacy, bewitched or worse. Psychiatric disorders fall under mental health. Is it not time that those who commit crimes are afforded the same considerations?

There are physical and mental diseases that are currently regarded as incurable, yet research tirelessly continues to search for the breakthrough. Again, is it not time that we do the same for those presently imprisoned?

We do need to protect the public from people considered to be dangerous, but why not place them in care centres where multi-disciplinary therapies and treatments can be administered and explored. Even if the costs exceed that of imprisonment, it’s a future of breakthroughs and drastically reduced crime rates that we are working towards. We can no longer throw up our hands and continue to support an ineffective system.

Some may think that crime without retribution would invite pandemonium, that people would feel free to indulge in such acts. So let’s get personal – would YOU commit crime? And to those who would, should we not be asking why and seeking to solve the causes of such motivation. But the overarching point is that the current approach to crime is not working. Not even the death sentence has been proven to deter crime. It is time for change.

Punishment meted out under the law of justice may appease the need for vengeance, but how is that practically beneficial? It does not return lost lives, nor does it right wrongs. It does, however, perpetuate the cycle of suffering, not just for the offender but for his or her loved ones. How would you feel if your loved one committed a crime, your parent, or son or daughter? Putting a loved one’s face on offenders dramatically curbs the eagerness to condemn.

As Mahatma Gandhi said,
                                            “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”