Should Crime be Prevented or Punished?

In the wake of 9/11, the American civil government produced one of the most anti-constitutional laws ever to be passed: the USA PATRIOT Act. More about that and the misuse of the term “domestic terrorism” here. Not only did it seriously curtail many of your civil liberties, it also set the stage for every similar piece of legislation that has come after it (including the NDAA and the UN Small Arms Treaty). It set the stage by finally transitioning the government’s judicial responsibility from punishment of crime to prevention of crime.

In the past, punishment was the only prevention the civil government had recourse to. That is why public executions, floggings, and stockades were such an important part of the past administration of justice. Potential criminals would see what happened to current criminals, and they would think twice before doing the same. A system of punishment is much less complicated than a system of prevention. Someone damages someone else’s life or property, and they are punished in a manner fitting to their crime. If they take a life, they lose theirs. If they take stuff, they lose their stuff (or they lose their time in indentured servitude to the victim of their crime). Also available to the agent of justice: public flogging for damage done to another that did not result in loss of life, limb, or property. This is classic “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” justice. And though it seems very harsh at times, it works.

In more “civilized” societies, punishment gradually shifts over to regulation and prevention. Rather than waiting for you to speed headlong into that nice lady crossing the street, the police pull you over for speeding before you get to her. Rather than letting you build a house that might fall in on your guests, and then determining whether there was criminal negligence on your part, the building code inspector comes out first to issue you a permit after you jump through some hoops.

This all seems fine and good. Except for the fact that regulations are inherently arbitrary. Further, in order to prevent crime, you must of necessity bother citizens who are not (yet) criminals. It used to be the case that a person could go almost his whole life never having to bother at all with an agent of the civil government. Now, you can’t go a day without the constant presence of police, surveillance, and a deluge of regulations. Who knows how many laws we break every day without thinking.

After 9/11, none of us ever wanted that kind of terrorist act to happen again. Not ever. We wanted the civil government to intercept and obstruct terrorism and major crimes. It wasn’t good enough to just punish them after they happened. Because this could never be allowed to happen again. In other words, we were afraid. But we have let our fears and our longings for security eat away at and destroy the root of what makes this country worth living in. We are not safer now than we were then. Not by any means. The civil government may have spared us from a few violent fanatics, ((Though we have no way of determining how effective their measures have been.)) but who will spare us from the civil government? When will we realize that we have traded an intermittent terror for a constant one? H. L. Mencken pegged it:

Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary. ((H. L. Mencken, In Defense of Women (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922), p. 53.))

In a free society, each of us has to take risks. It may be that we lose a loved one to a drunk driver, but that happens even still. You just can’t prevent crime, no matter how hard you try. So when the civil government stops punishing crime and starts trying to prevent it, it is neither prevented nor punished. And while crime grows, free and innocent law-abiding citizens suffer every day under the tyrannical regulations of an over-reaching government. We have to stop allowing fear to rule us. Fear of terrorists, fear of the civil government, fear of each other… Fear and freedom are mutually exclusive. For a person who longs for security will not long hold on to his liberty.

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