[Written in 2004.]
Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, wrote at some length about his psychic turmoil over having been a key player in the murder of so many Jews. Shortly after sharing this, in 1947, he was hanged in Poland by a war crimes tribunal. His death was a loss to the world, and tells volumes about the troubling dynamics that led society to murder him. Granted, he was as vicious a war criminal as they painted him to be, but by murdering him society committed its own crime against humanity. Rudolf Höss, as sick as he was, remained a human being to his final breath, and thus retained the potential for healing and redemption. But society, in its supposed thirst for revenge – which they mistake as justice – denied him that.
Criminals such as Höss (and Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Timothy McVeigh, Stalin, and countless others) were predestined for their lives as criminals because of the horrors of their childhood. And as long as “normal” people need to deny their own childhood horrors to retain their idealized images of their parents, they will need to demonize some “evil other” to balance out the scales.
On the flip side, one cannot demonize even the worst of criminals when one discovers that the truths of their childhoods differ only by a matter of degree from one’s own. Thus sick societies kill the “evil other” before he has a chance to prove his humanity by telling his tale, in much the same way that sick individuals banish uncomfortable sides of themselves into distant boxes in their own psyches.
Unenlightened societies (and families) fear healed people more than they do the worst criminals. Healed people (and spirited children) do not protect denial, and their very existences force people to come into contact with their buried sides. Healed people tell the truth, and are summarily shunned. Healed people implicate their parents of long ago, and in so doing implicate the parents of today who are often little more than modernized clones running the same cruel loops.
Thus an enlightened society does not kill criminals. An enlightened society has no hesitation protecting itself from criminals by removing them, preferably temporarily, but an enlightened society offers all its available resources for the true rehabilitation, and thus emancipation, of the criminal – through emotional healing. Just imagine if the billions spent on war were channeled instead toward healing. And ironically, if you really want to make a criminal suffer, don’t kill him, let him heal – then he’ll know pain. Anyone who has healed much knows this.
Giving criminals a chance to heal allows them the chance to redeem themselves as members of society, and contribute to its evolution. By killing criminals we deprive ourselves of the lessons they could teach us if they could learn to speak their truth. Clearly Höss had the potential for this, and given time and the right environment so would others.
I once read the testament of a most gruesome serial killer who took the rare step of confessing his crimes and admitting his motives as best he understood them. Disturbing as it was, it was a valuable document, and for its contribution alone I was glad they hadn’t put him to death. If only he’d had the ability to trace the deepest roots of his pathology into his own childhood traumas (which he failed to do). Alas, prison didn’t offer him the right environment for that type of soul-searching. No surprise. It’s hard enough to find that environment in a therapist’s office. So many therapists still side with traumatizing parents and criminalize the truth-seeking child within.