Baby in the monster

OPINION: Poverty, poor housing, unemployment, educational underachievement and family violence are among the drivers of social alienation and violent offending.

Followers of this site and of my writing and broadcasting will know that in matters of crime and punishment my approach could reasonably be defined as “liberal.” That approach was perhaps best summarised in Baby in the Monster, a piece about Malcolm Rewa originally broadcast on National Radio’s Top Of The Morning and later included in a collection of columns from the programme, entitled Brian’s Week. Here are a couple of paragraphs from Baby in the Monster:

“So how and why do monsters emerge? My own view as a hard determinist is that nature and nurture conspire to make us what we are. But whether you accept that view or not, it is undeniable that the formative experiences of childhood and youth play a critical role in whether we become saint or sinner. Violent offenders, not least those who abuse women and children, were themselves almost invariably the victims of violence and abuse.

“I like to look at the people around me and imagine them as little babies. The saintly person was once a little baby but so too was the monster. Baby and saint, baby and monster are not two separate people but stages in the life of one person. Between baby and saint, baby and monster, there stretches a continuum along which things happen to each of them that determine what they will be at any given stage of their lives. (This, incidentally, is more or less the same conclusion reached in the brilliant television series Why Am I? based on the Dunedin Longitudinal Study and broadcast on TVOne.)

“Only by separating people from their personal histories, by treating the person now as though he or she had no connection with the person then, is it possible to condemn them outright, to dismiss them as sub-human. It’s easy, of course, to see the baby in the saint. The real skill is in seeing the baby in the monster.”

This is still my view. Poverty, poor housing, unemployment, educational underachievement and family violence are among the drivers of social alienation and violent offending. When we punish the violent offenders in our midst, we are most often punishing people who were themselves the victim of parental neglect and family violence.

Which brings me to little Moko Sayviah Rangitoheriri, beaten and tortured to death by David William Haerewa and Tania Shailer, his “carers.” As I read the reports of their trial, I found it increasingly difficult to find the baby in either of these monsters. Nor could I fathom how torturing a four-year-old to death could be seen as anything less than a horrific and protracted act of murder.

So I find myself in the uncomfortable position of joining those who believe that nothing less than life imprisonment will serve as adequate punishment for these particular monsters. An inconsistency on my part perhaps, since no doubt their life histories could reveal clues to the determinants that made them the people they are today. Sometimes you just have to stop listening to your head and tune into your heart instead. Moko Sayviah Rangitoheriri deserves no less.

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards posts at Brian Edwards Media.

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

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