Tarnished for Life: The error in throwing away those who have made mistakes


[Image: A person walking away from the viewer on some kind of beach, leaving footprints on the wet sand.]

Sometimes human beings do terrible things. They fuck up. They hurt people. They damage things. They do ridiculous, horrible shit. Sometimes they are punished for what they do. Sometimes they aren’t. But no matter what happens to them legally after they do their terrible thing, what do we do with them after they’ve served their time, paid their debt to society, or been declared unable to be criminally pursued?

There’s a polarizing concept in popular culture that once someone has done something terrible, they have no future, but instead should cease to exist. No matter how young they are, how much they could potentially offer the world, no matter how much time they have left on this earth, they don’t deserve to be a part of anything anymore. They should be cut off and excommunicated from the human race. And while this idea might feel justified for those who have suffered and those that know the heinous nature of the crime, this tarnished for life, ceasing to exist idea is not practical and, in the end, not helpful.

While it’s easy and sometimes seems only logical to put people like perpetrators of violence into a box of inhumanity, where they are not one of us decent people but some other category of human, it’s not true. Humans are capable of terrible things. The nightly news tells us this every night. Doing something horrible doesn’t mean you are not a person. It also does not prevent you from existing after this terrible thing has happened.

So what are we to do with people once they have done their horrible deed? Read on any comment thread about any variety of crimes or offenses and there will be someone calling for that person’s murder. But we can’t murder everyone who has done something terrible. Neither can we afford to throw these people away. If you want to honor the humanity of the victims of this terrible act, you have to honor the humanity of the person that also committed it. They are not an other now. They are still people and when their lives are still in front of them, they need something to do with it.

When I was organizer for V-Day 2008 at MBC we screened the documentary Until The Violence Stops. In that movie was a man who was a former abuser. He spoke openly, with tears running down his face, about his shameful past behavior where he beat his wife. He recalled his toddler child once trying to protect his mother from his father. I was stunned. I had never heard an abuser talk about their abuse and the environment they had been raised in that had facilitated this abuse.

While abusers should in no way dominate the conversation about domestic violence, they do need to be included. How are we ever going to stand any kind of crime or form of abuse if all that is examined is one side of the story? This is not to validate the abuse, but to figure out why it happened. What leads to violence? What warning signs are there that someone can become violent? What kind of intervention works to prevent violence? How can someone who has been violent be rehabilitated?

It would be one thing if someone who has committed a crime or wronged someone just ceased to exist after this event happened. But it doesn’t. When someone does something horrible, no matter how horrible it is, they’re still alive. Even if their way of making amends is small, even if all they do is make the world slightly less shitty in tiny portions from behind bars, they deserve that chance. Everyone deserves a chance to improve world and that chance should never be taken away.