The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Provocation in crime

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  1. This week’s parashah opens with an account of Avrohom eulogising and crying for Soroh who has just died. The word “and to cry for her” is spelled with a small letter chaf.
  2. The Baal Haturim offers a primary explanation that because Soroh had lived such a full and long life Avrohom’s grief was less extreme than had she suffered a tragically early death. Then he adds a secondary and alternative explanation: when Soroh challenged God to judge between her and Avrohom in the matter of her desire to expel Hagar from their home (Bereishis 16:5) she in one sense called down a judgment upon herself, as a result of which she was responsible for her own death – and we do not eulogise a person who is responsible for his or her own death.The first of these explanations makes immediate sense. The second is bewildering: how do we know that Soroh’s death was connected with her demand for Divine judgment (Soroh did not die until very much later, and when the same matter is next discussed between Avrohom and Soroh she receives express and unequivocal Divine approval (21:12))? And how does this fit with the many rabbinic assertions that Soroh died without sin (see, in particular, Rashi on 23:1 and the Malbim on 23:3)? And in any event, the prohibition cited by the Baal Haturim is the prohibition in eulogising, but it is a letter of the word “and to cry for her”, not of the word “to eulogise her” that is diminished.
  3. An explanation designated expressly as a second alternative is sometimes so designated because it is indeed problematic but is nevertheless capable of teaching an important idea.
  4. In this case, although it may be difficult or impossible for us to discern how or in what sense the point applied to Soroh, we can learn the general idea that it is both natural and acceptable for a person’s conduct to affect my emotional reaction to what happens to him or her as a result of it. The reason for not eulogising someone who is directly responsible for his or her own death (and the halochoh applies only to direct responsibility) is that the responsibility changes the nature of our emotional response to the death from a relatively straight-forward sense of loss, that can be marked and to some extent alleviated by recounting the deceased’s virtues, into something which may be more or less intense depending on the case but which in any event either is or should be more complicated.
  5. Amnesty International this week published the results of a survey in which about 25 per cent of those who responded thought that victims of a certain crime are “partly to blame” for the crime if they have behaved in a manner that might objectively be thought to increase the risk of their being targeted. Amnesty describe the results as shocking.
  6. I find the results disturbing not so much because they reveal malicious or wrong thinking but because they reveal confused thinking (on the part of those who compiled the survey as well as those who answered it). In particular, the results suggest that too many people fail to distinguish between their feelings about the perpetrator of a crime and their feelings about the victim.
  7. The commission of a crime is always a moral wrong, of a greater or lesser degree depending on the nature of the crime and the mental and other circumstances of the criminal. The wilful murder of a person who stands already condemned to death is no less a murder. Theft is no less wrong because the victim behaved unattractively and unwisely by flaunting his or her wealth.
  8. But what we feel about the victim, as distinct from what we feel about the criminal, will be affected by how he or she has behaved. The person who walks through a deprived area deliberately and ostentatiously displaying jewellery and other expensive accessories commits the wrong of placing a stumbling-block before the blind. His or her wrong does not excuse someone who then mugs him or her, and is not in itself a reason for treating the criminal more leniently. But it may, reasonably and constructively, affect how I feel about the victim and whether I feel the victim, and society in general, should have modified his or her behaviour.
  9. If we are as a society troubled by the levels of crime of all kinds, our thoughts as to how crime can be reduced should be as broadly-ranging as possible; and we should be prepared to examine our own behaviour and consider whether, without offering it as an excuse for criminals, we could sensibly be doing more to reduce temptations to crime, both immediate and indirect, and to assist either actual or potential criminals to recover or retain proper paths of behaviour. To coin a phrase, “tough on crime and constructive on the causes of crime”.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

November 26, 2005 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

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