Monday, January 8, 2007

Just like TV

Questions are now being asked about how parolee Graeme Burton was ever released only to kill again. But instead of focussing on the specifics of this prisoner we should ask ourselves deeper questions about the role of violence in our society.

Graeme Burton has spent the past three weeks eluding Police around Wellington while gearing up with a heavy duty selection of weapons - obviously from associates he has maintained contact with on the outside. Police were gradually closing in on his position in the Wainui hills when Burton tried to steal a quad bike by shooting its rider, Karl Kuchenbecker, killing him. Fortunately two mountain bikers who happened on the scene slightly later were spared as were two others later on. Neverthless the situation was rapidly turning ugly and Police ended up shooting Burton in the leg before arresting him.

There is no doubt that Graeme Burton is a very violent man. He killed Paul Anderson in 1992 in a nightclub while high on 6 different drugs and the time he spent in jail has not softened him one whit. But what is interesting is not Graeme Burton's violence but society's reaction to it.

Every night our television routinely portrays violence every bit as terrible as that which occurred in Wainui yesterday afternoon. But when this "entertainment" escapes into reality society falls back in shock and horror. TV can show all sorts of apalling acts of violence and cruelty but when it starts happening nearby its as if a dream has started coming true.

It seems obvious to me that the televisual violence plays an important psycho-social role. We need it to act out our fears of real violence. Because televisual violence is always about the reassertion of societal norms over criminality we are reassured by this pantomime violence, even when it is shown with some grittiness. The question, however is, to what extent does the stretching of the violent imagination by story-tellers stretch the violent imaginations of criminals. Did Graeme Burton have any real concept of what he was doing or was he merely acting out a role; casting himself in his own crime drama?

Women's views on violence are crucial to this. Women are the main fans of televisual violence. They are also the main victims of real violence. It is also arguable that as society has seen an increase in female power it has seen a decrease in officially sanctioned violence to contain male aggression. Today parents, prison officers, school teachers, and Police walk a minefield of policies and procedures when confronted with young male challenges to authority. Instead of simply adminstering a quick boot up the bum a panopoly of family discussions, group therapy and yacking follows any act of bullying. Perhaps the aim is to pussywhip the transgressors into compliance but anecdotal evidence at least, suggests this isn't working.

To my mind the question of violence has not been properly addressed by our society. The most polite people in the world are generally the most seriously violent. The best way to address violence is through channels which teach it. Men have long had structures by which the young males are taught to be violent within a system that disciplines that violence. All martial arts training involves rules and a controlling heirarchy. It is training that encourages violence without training in it (eg rugby) that leads to explosions of violence both on and off the field.

Violent discipline without disciplined violence can become abuse. But lack of any discipline at all can lead to widespread abuse as well. In my view society has to ask whether it would rather have disciplined or undisciplined violence. Personally I would rather see disciplined violent discipline than widespread undisciplined violence. Such violence is not necessarily about causing pain as reducing the capacity to do harm.

Many people have commented that Graeme Burton's loss of a leg following the shootout, will at least slow him up a bit. But one has to ask why this has to be a random side-effect of participating in a shoot-out rather than a deliberate act by society in response to his stabbing Paul Anderson? Paul Anderson, and now Karl Kuchenbecker have died at Graeme Burton's hands. These are not accidental killings, nor responses to many years of abuse but murders of innocent bystanders.

Locking a person up in jail rarely makes them a better person. Nor does it reduce their propensity to reoffend much. That is because it does not instill discipline. Sending prisoners to a zen monastry where they had to meditate, carry out menial tasks, eat what they can beg and bathe in freezing water would instill discipline. Teaching them to survive in the bush might instill discipline. Making prisoners sail a ship together might instill discipline. Even making them march up and down and clean things in the Army might instill discipline but putting them in a concrete institution which perpetuates expensive and pointless existential torture does nothing but make them angry.

People need to be given a chance to learn from and reflect on their mistakes and do their best to make amends. To seek redemption in both the eyes of society and their own conscience. To do this they have to take responsibility for their actions and be presented with a choice. Surveys of offenders have found that once they have experienced prison they have no fear of it. Some even welcome it. Without fear their is no deterence and without deterrence people like Graeme Burton reoffend.

If a person cannot learn self-displine and is still a threat to society then the next response is a choice of two options. Either they must be placed outside society (which is not feasible) or they must have their capacity to threaten society reduced. Very few violent criminals, for example, are remain violent when confined to a wheelchair. Very few violent criminals are blind. Limiting a violent criminals ability to defend himself is in itself a lesson in humility many need to take on board. If a man who kicked his "girlfriend"s eye out were subjected to medical blindness in one eye in response (instead of 4 months in jail) he might develop a better appreciation of the loss he had inflicted.

To some this may sound hideous, illegal and reactionary. And I must confess it is not something which fills me with joy. But we are not talking about ordinary people here. We are talking about that 0.1% of society which makes life for everyone else wretched.

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