Many of us who bear witness to the appalling cruelty of the rape and murder of women in our country have been left searching for an answer to a fundamental question, one which goes to the very heart of understanding what makes us human: What kind of person could commit such a patently evil act? This lack of comprehension fuelled by the extreme violence and apparent lack of remorse has inflamed our anger so much that we demand the immediate execution of those who are found guilty without recourse to any appeal and, even most disturbingly, not to even bother to wait for the judicial process to take it course — lynching or celebrating the murder those who are just suspected of committing these heinous crimes.
While there are a number of arguments on either side of the contentious debate of whether the killing of a citizen through a judicial route could ever be a just punishment (and, for the record, a Law Commission of India report in 2015 recommended abolishing the death penalty), a dominant argument in favour is that such an extreme penalty is reserved for crimes which are considered the “rarest of the rare”.
Implicit in this notion is that the persons who committed these crimes belong to a particularly rare variant of our species, marked out by their ability to inflict the most brutal violence, often pre-meditated, and with no remorse. An exemplar of this perspective was voiced at the recent final appeal hearings of the men sentenced to death in the December 16, 2012 gangrape and murder case. Appearing for the Delhi Police, then Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, opposing the review plea, referred to the convicts as “monsters” who did not deserve sympathy. He said “there are some crimes for which humanity cries. On that fateful day, god also must have held his head in shame for two reasons. First for not being able to save the innocent girl and second for creating these monsters”.
So there we have it, faithfully recorded like all other statements made by the learned members of our judiciary, for posterity. But, tragically, the statement is devoid of fact for a number of reasons. One, which is probably well-known to anyone who has had the luxury of a decent school education in this country, is that no human being was “created” by any “god”. But of course, that statement was not intended to upend centuries of science, but to convey the gravity of horror of the crimes which could only have been perpetrated by human beings who were born evil. In this reading of the statement, there is little doubt that science has a definitive answer. As with any other human trait, empathy or the ability to feel another person’s pain and fear, to put yourself in another person’s shoes, is ultimately a product of how our brains are wired. The foundations of who we become as adults are indeed laid down by the time of our birth. But, like a house, it is only a foundation we are born with. The rest of the house is built, brick by brick, tile by tile, nail by nail, shaped by our environments, in particular during our childhood and adolescence.
In all the extensive reportage about the December 2012 victim, almost the entire focus has been on the brutality of the crime. This is like trying to understand the monuments of New Delhi without any awareness of its thousand-year history. Few have bothered to delve into the stories of these six young men to try to understand why they might have been able to inflict such horrific pain on an innocent, helpless, young woman. These rare examples of authentic journalism speak to childhoods blighted by poverty, neglect, violence, educational difficulties, substance use and mental illness. There were often clear pre-existing signals of disturbances in their behaviour or environments, but with a complete absence of any scaffolding to help them deal with these challenges when it mattered most.
For example, one of the men was “remembered by his neighbours for being a troublemaker who frequently got involved in drunken brawls” while another left home when he was just 11, working in New Delhi to support his family because his father had a mental disability. None of these difficult life stories can ever justify their acts, but they are testimony to something developmental science has known for a long time: Neglect, violence and deprivation in the early years of life are powerful determinants of our abilities to feel remorse and manage anger.
By the time one reaches young adulthood, the untrammeled rage and lack of empathy, combined with the impulsivity and risk-taking — the developmental hallmarks of youth — and the patriarchy, violence, class and communal barriers and sexual repression that pervades our society, make for a toxic brew which can push a vulnerable young person over the cliff of brutal crime at the slightest provocation. Science also shows us that the earlier we detect these difficulties and provide therapeutic interventions, such as parenting support and nurturing environments, the better the outcomes. But what chance do the tens of millions of children in this country facing deprivation and neglect have when our child welfare system is, at best, decrepit and, at worst, frankly abusive?
I am not being an apologist for these young men. They committed an unforgivably horrible crime and they deserve to be punished (though I am resolutely opposed to the idea of capital punishment). But, to return to the question of whether these young men were “created” as “monsters”, I beg to differ with the learned solicitor-general: None of them were born evil. If god does hang his head in shame, it is because we, as a society, fail our children so egregiously. No one is born evil. Think for a moment about the police in this country who routinely murder those under their protection or ordinary people in our communities who see nothing wrong in lynching a person because of the food they choose to eat. Did god create them too? If god does hang His head in shame, it is surely because we are killing in His name.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 18, 2020 under the title ‘A shared shame’. The writer is the Pershing Square Professor of Global Health, Harvard Medical School
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