Crime and Compassion: Does Mick Philpott deserve any compassion?

Certainly the crime committed by Mick Philpott, Mairead Philpott, and Paul Mosley was utterly deplorable and horrendous. The judge in the trial, Mrs Justice Thirlwall, concluded that the plot to set fire to the Philpott’s house and to rescue their six children was “a wicked and dangerous plan”, which was “outside the comprehension of any right-thinking person”. The tragic consequence was the death of six innocent children.

media-general-newspaper-images-3However, the reaction of some sections of the press and the media to the perpetrators of this crime leads us to consider whether “evil Mick Philpott”, as much of the press have now rechristened him, deserves any of our compassion? This question brought to mind an interview that I recently gave to a blog about the legal system in the UK. I am, therefore, posting below some of the questions posed by the The Law Map, a blog for people in the legal profession, and the answers I gave:

TheLawMap: Should the need for compassionate living require a more compassionate justice system? How could this be achieved?

At the core of a compassionate justice system is the way that we as individuals view those with whom we come into contact, whether they are victims or perpetrators. As such, the process of compassion must be one of recognising our common humanity with each other, and taking seriously the backgrounds that others hail from.

Compassion is certainly not a case of allowing people to avoid “justice” or letting people “get away with it”. Still, we should never forget that people are not open books. Situations, traumatic upbringings, and backgrounds are not always apparent to us, and so we should take care not to judge others directly on what we do see them do, how we see them act, or on what others tell us about them.

Dredd 1In the recent Hollywood film Dredd [2011], Judge Dredd is stopped from implementing the death penalty on an individual when his psychic sidekick is able to reveal the abuse and humiliation to which the character had been subjected. Life is not like a superhero blockbuster, but our role is still to take seriously the paths, often relating to broken childhoods, that people have trod.

Too often our politics, legal system, and especially the press want to separate people into saints and sinners. Compassion, though, demands from us a recognition that our inclination towards good and bad is, very often, related to suffering in our past. As such, we have to face the reality that if we had the same genes and the same upbringing as others, there is a good chance that we would be acting the same way. That is a huge challenge to the way that we as individuals, as well as every part of our society, including the legal system, treat other people.

The Law Map: Are there individuals locked in correctional facilities who could be beyond compassion & should compassion be the basis of a penal system that reflects the pain and suffering of the victims?

Certainly, the pain and suffering of victims should never be devalued, as our love and care towards them is paramount. But compassion towards the victim and the perpetrator are not mutually exclusive. As such, no one is beyond our compassion. After all, compassion challenges us to recognise our common humanity with all, even convicted criminals.

A few years back I took a group of students to a former Nazi concentration camp. At one point, as we all stood silent in the midst of our thoughts of the horrors the prisoners had faced, one student said: ‘imagine if we had been one of the guards here’. At that moment, it dawned on me that, yes we could have been one of the prisoners, but we equally could have been one of the oppressors. We are so used empathetically to putting ourselves in the shoes of the oppressed, that we forget that the oppressors are also human, just like you and me.

MirrorHowever heinous we regard the actions of others, our call should always be towards compassion. The sickening actions of Myra Hindley were clearly abhorrent. However, the reaction of our society after Hindley’s death reveals how little self-awareness we have of the capacity for the most horrendous evil, as well as the greatest good, that is present in us all. The Sun exclaimed that ‘Myra the Devil’ would never be forgiven, The Daily Mail bemoaned the fact that she had a peaceful death, while The Daily Express’s front page headline simply read ‘Go to Hell, Myra’.

The temptation is certainly to demonise offenders and regard them as ‘different’ from us and our loved ones. By doing so, we are led to believe that reform, redemption, and restoration are naïve and implausible. We, therefore, separate and stigmatize those who act in ways that go against our moral codes.

Beasts Of Southern Wild poster review

In my own Christian tradition, Jesus Christ certainly held a rich concept of justice, but he also clearly held that nothing or no one was beyond redemption. His love, acceptance, and compassion had no boundaries, a fact that even many parts of the Church today fails to live out. The recent film Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011] beautifully summarised the concept that our common humanity challenges us to show care for even the most broken and lost souls: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, then the entire universe will get busted”.

The Law Map: Does the technologically interconnected nature of modern living allow us to be more compassionate and concerned about human rights issues across the globe?

At the heart of life is relationship. We are as a species utterly dependent on each other. The French Cistercian monk Charles de Foucald suggested a concept of the ‘universal brotherhood’. In other words, all of us are intimately connected as one large family and should treat each other with this in mind. As Desmond Tutu put it: ‘I hope we can accept a wonderful truth – we are family! We are family!”

Mick-Philpott-on-Jeremy-Kyle-Show-1798447Yet, in our everyday lives, we often revel in our separation from each other. Television shows such as The Jeremy Kyle Show and The X Factor, for example, fail to recognise our unity and common humanity, but instead rejoice in our dissimilarity with those whom we are watching. We almost delight in the rejects of these shows, and enjoy the feeling that we are so very different to them. Our enjoyment at the appalling vocal performances of early contestants in the auditions for The X Factor, or the poorly spoken guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show, help to make us feel better personally, but always at the expense of the weak, powerless, or ignorant.

One might think that the technologically interconnected nature of modern living would help us feel more connected with the world around us, but, in fact, in many ways it serves to distance us from others. In our workplaces, we don’t have to see people face-to-face these days, or even chat to them on the phone, but we simply fire a quick email away to them. With regards to the law, this detachment from others has led to a new kind of criminal activity. Internet crime is the ultimate faceless disconnection, where the perpetrators do not have to look us victims straight in the eye when they carry out their crimes.

IMG_0215On the other hand, technology has been at the forefront of liberating social change, as shown in the prevalence of social media during the Arab Spring uprisings, and it is also helping to highlight the centrality of compassion and compassionate actions in our daily lives. Movements like the Charter for Compassion, Compassion It, Compassion International, Compassion in World Farming, and Compassionate Action Network themselves utilise technology either to advocate concern and care for the environment, human rights, and issues of poverty, or to simply to urge people worldwide to practice compassion in their everyday lives. ‘I know we are all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference’, muses Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt [2002]. He then asks two questions that all of us, whether we are working in the legal profession or not, should ask ourselves as we reflect on our lives and careers thus far: ‘What kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?’

For the full interview, please visit The Law Map.

See also Chapter 6 of The Compassion Quest.