On Bastille Day 2016, I took two of my grandsons some croissants for breakfast as a celebration (and because they love croissants with melted cheese). This was in Australia many hours before day break on 14th July in Nice.
I was explaining to the almost ten year old about the history of France and the storming of the Bastille. He was quite perplexed that the forced release of prisoners from a gaol would represent the freedom of a country. As usual with this young man the discussion turned philosophical. Foucault himself would have been proud! We discussed punishment in general and the aims of incarceration; protection of society, deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation and perhaps even retribution? I explained the history of gaols and the sometimes accidental role it has played in punishment. We discussed alternatives, historic and current.
He was interesting in his ideas on the death penalty for murder. He took on board the concept that perhaps society should not be asked to bear the responsibility of killing a person as tooth for tooth retribution for their action of killing. His suggestion was that this may be an inappropriate reaction in the case of one death but not in cases of multiple deaths.
Then there was news of the tragedy in Nice.
I could not help being relieved that the perpetrator of this tragedy had been killed, mainly, I thought, because that prevented more deaths. Then when the father of the perpetrator spoke out about his son’s mental illness I was even more relieved in the sense that the perpetrator will never have to face the enormity of what he did in that period of insanity if such insanity was the cause.
It is very possible that law enforcement agencies would rather have him alive in their quest to know what actually happened, why and how to prevent it happening again.
But the tragedy inevitably leads back to the original storming of the Bastille.
How do we keep each society safe whilst still accepting that each single one of us in any time in any society will not always have the same views as to how that society should be constructed? We cannot just take the word of a king or a ruler and that 1789 storming was symbolic of this. Democracy is a lauded idea and the best we have so far, but perhaps we should look hard at views of a democratic majority which does not accept its duty to both respect and look after the minorities in their population.
And how can we improve the lot of the mentally ill? We have become so absorbed with viewing mental illness through the 21st Century lens of “depression” that we have, in many ways, failed the fortunately much less common group of mentally ill people subject to psychotic episodes. This failure is much more evident since the closure of the old “asylums”, leaving the hard working mental health professionals with fewer options and the idea of hospitalisation as a last resort. How well does the justice system deal with mental illness?
We have a long way left to go in society, even in democratic societies. And a lot more important issues to deal with than economic “add ons” like superannuation and negative gearing and other distractions to real life.
We need to get to the greater causes of these many tragic events all around us, such as the one in Nice yesterday.