Society has to be better than the individual…

“Society has to be better than the individual…”

This quote comes courtesy of the film Ides of March, a political drama released in 2011 starring George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Evan Rachel Wood. The story follows a campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for President in a non-descript election year. As a true political nerd, I really enjoyed it.

This quote has lingered in my memory since I first saw the film. Every now and then, I bring it up when discussing national issues where one individuals actions would make us worse as a society. In particular, one story I read late this past week reminded me of this quote and its meaning for me and my personally held values.

Story: A young man in Cleveland, OH on trial for the murder of three high school students in February of 2012 was awaiting sentencing for his actions. Sadly, this is not a new story. But we can talk about youth, gun violence, and specifically school shootings another time… What made this particular story so chilling is a shirt the murderer wore, and the statement he made directly to the families of those he killed. While I won’t repeat it here, you can find it in the link above. Suffice to say it’s vulgar and heartbreaking at the same time.

Statements made by the victims’ families before the killer’s sentencing rang true to the Ides of March script:

“You’re really lucky there are so many police in this room right now… You can smile all you want.”

Those are the words of one mother reading a statement to the murderer while the young man looked on with a smile, wearing a shirt with the words “KILLER” scrawled badly across the chest. The young man was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say this young man represents one personification of evil in our world.

Given the opportunity, many would seek revenge against someone who harmed members of their family, even moreso if they were harmed with malicious intent. I have no doubt it would at least cross my mind; I have family and friends I would defend above and beyond the risk of jail time. But this is an issue people have strong feelings about on both sides.

This past week I was able shared meals with new friends and my family. On two occasions, the topic of “life” from a political perspective came up. My position on life has been previously stated here, but I feel this is a good time to mention it again. One conversation centered around what the purpose was for locking someone up for the rest of their life. What do we stand to gain? It is expensive to feed, clothe, guard, and defend (both literally and legally) criminals sentenced to life without parole.

I believe we stand to gain a few things, but I thing we lose far more by ending the lives of criminals. We lose a little bit of ourselves by allowing our governments to exact revenge.  I believe we gain (or maybe earn) the ability to have an honest conversation about why people behave in ways that end with them locked up behind bars rather than executed.

I support the defense of Life. This position means I am opposed to abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, etc. I do support the right to defend oneself, with fatal consequences if necessary. I support the right of our nation to defend itself as well, although they way in which we do this is becoming far less black and white. Continually improving technologies enable remote warfare, and that makes it tougher to distinguigh what is defensive and offensive (or Bush-doctrine).

This young man from Ohio shot six people, killing three. Then, prior to being sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release, his behavior proved he had no respect for life, for family, for society. This is where my position finds its cornerstone.

If a man or woman has no respect for human life; what value is there in our government(s) ending his or her life? As the quote goes, “Society has to be better than the individual.” Even though individual family members often (understandably) call for “an extremely slow, tortuous death” for the murderer, our society must be better than this.

Although this young man didn’t value the lives lived around him (and possibly not even his own), our society must choose to value his. If he lives an additional year or sixty, he will live his life in prison, away from the society he purposefully disrupted with his actions. But he will live. Society will move on, however painfully, because it must. And while the families involved in this tragedy will eventually celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, successes, births and happy moments throughout the course of their lives, he will remain locked away in prison, full of evil and hatred. But society will have been better to him than he was to society.

One might argue that society’s best revenge is knowing that those intent on harming others would be required to live out their lives behind bars while the rest of us move on, continuing to try and improve society. And we try to improve society despite the worst of us unnecessarily making that process more difficult from time-to-time. But we still try. And because we need to better as a society then an individual would be, we must value the lives of those who wish us harm by not taking them away, if possible. Because either life is valuable, or it isn’t. We need to make a decision about life as a nation, as a people. Because our society has to be better than the individual. If it isn’t, then what’s the point?

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2 responses to “Society has to be better than the individual…”

  1. rangerevans says :

    ‘Better’ is a pretty subjective adjective. I, for instance, believe it is better for that individual not to suffer the anguish of having to look over his shoulder every day in prison for the rest of his life, not knowing the day or the hour one of his cohorts is going to stick the shank in him or bear the shame of becoming another prisoner’s bitch for evil deviant sexual purposes. Maybe we would be a better society (I know we would be better off financially) if we took these stings and arrows this individual will have to endure the next 60 years and just pricked his arm once with a solution that allows him to take the celestial dirt nap and start his real punishment! I am sure there would be plenty of volunteers to push the plunger.
    Seems to me you’re going liberal on us. What would Jesus do? I think i know what the God of the Old Testament would do but is there a religious consciense in your society?

    • Wes Hartline says :

      I think we know what Jesus would do. And it wouldn’t be “eye-for-an-eye” or any other sort of vengeful act.

      There absolutely is a religious conscience in society, whether some people like it or not (I clearly do like it). If we’re going to go Old Testament, that society set up cities of refuge where unintentional murderers could go to live their lives free from the fear of revenge by families until the death of the high priest. Prison is essentially no different. So if we’re going to bring up Old Testament law, there it is.

      Of course, we don’t live under Old Testament law any longer thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus’ life on the cross. And as sinners ourselves, we should be mindful of what our sin means. Death.

      I guess I feel like Christians should support life no matter what. Life in sin/prison is still life. We should endeavor to respect life. I think that’s what Jesus would have us do.

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