Human Zoos

The other day I was driving with my wife along a lonely highway in eastern North Carolina (yes, I know, all the highways in eastern North Carolina are lonely) when we noticed a motorcyclist riding along with a small child perched on the seat behind him. The child was no more than 9 or 10 years old, and both my wife and I remarked on the obvious stupidity of plopping a child on a crotch rocket and barreling down the road at 65 mph. What followed though, revealed much about how conditioned we are by our state-worshipping culture in the "Land of the Free."

I immediately thought that some sort of punishment was due for the cyclist if there were a wreck and the child was hurt. My wife quickly corrected me and pointed out that it’s not the government’s business to intervene in that sort of situation. It opens all kinds of doors that the state has used to haul people off to prison in order to “protect” others.

What this uncovered was not just that we have become such statists in our general culture that we immediately assume that it’s right for the state to intervene in just about any area, but the damage that intervention, coupled with the other standard government practice of imprisonment, does to real, living, breathing human beings. The widely accepted idea of incarcerating criminals is simply the status quo in America. Try beginning a conversation at your next social gathering by declaring that just maybe, prisons aren't a good idea, and see how many jaws drop in wonderment.

The very idea of prison has at its root an Enlightenment belief in rehabilitation, in the fundamental goodness of human nature that society has somehow managed to screw up, and the offender simply needs a little reeducation time – oh, say 30 or 40 years or so – to be taught that you shouldn't rob a bank or kill someone. Of course, the average conservative of our day will jump up and shout, "No way, you loony jarhead, prison is punishment. I don't believe in all that rehab namby-pamby. They need to be locked up to pay for their crimes." Pay whom? The offended party, or the state?

The idea of restitution is not completely alien to our justice system; criminals today are still ordered to pay damages to those they’ve wronged, but all too often it’s simply an afterthought. The real “punishment” is when those who have violated the law have to “pay their debt to society” and serve their time in a holding pen for a few decades. How in the name of Patrick Henry does going to prison somehow make the offended party whole?

The answer is that in our country today, the state considers itself the primary aggrieved and wronged party in every crime that is committed. The state is then made whole by taking free slave labor from people for a few years – or decades as the case may be. This is somehow considered more humane than those harsh Biblical laws that are the foundation of Western culture and government. The Biblical view of lawbreaking is of course, twofold: the only possible parties that can be wronged are God and another human being. The reason God required restitution or retribution in the giving of His law was that humans were made in His image; to violate or harm another person was to do violence to His imagebearers; you can’t exactly do much moral or physical harm to a lump of jello, or an impersonal organization like government.

The requirement for the wronged party to be made whole was the basis for all of Biblical law. The value of the life of an imagebearer of God was so great that the life of a murderer was required of him. Of course, this sounds extremely mean and just so downright uncivilized to all us modern folks today; we know better now, post-Enlightenment, right? Well, all we have to do is to look at our prisons and see the glorious results.

As has been well-documented on this site, America imprisons more people than any other nation. The state takes away inmates’ liberty, controlling every moment of their lives, and locking them up in cages. For some reason, we’ve forgotten that maybe, just maybe, throwing hundreds of thousands of violent people together in an enclosed environment might not be a good idea. We wonder why there is a whole prison subculture of rape, theft, murder, and bribery; in short, why inmates act like animals. Because we treat them like animals. Instead of treating people who commit crimes against others like people, even when that might grate against our modern sensibilities, we stand by and approve of the state rounding up the cattle and robbing them of their humanity by dumping them in the Naughty Zoo.

Even most so-called conservatives think it’s just peachy to lock people up and throw away the key. We’ve been so conditioned by the left (re-education camps, anyone?) that we don’t realize that we’re using leftist methodology to “punish” criminals. The quiet winner is the state, which sucks up more dollars, establishes greater control over individuals, and steals the liberty and humanity from those that it imprisons. We need a drastic overhaul in the way we think of crime and punishment, a return to the concept of restitutional justice, and the jettisoning of the failed socialist ideology of rehabilitation and social re-engineering. The state can’t rehabilitate the sinful heart of man; once it tries, it makes itself a god.

May 22, 2003