My wife recently read an article about a retired military man and his family in Colombia, who for many years kept a young girl from a rural area as their personal slave. One of the family’s daughters, after living for years with the anguishing knowledge that what her beloved family was doing was gravely wrong, finally spoke up about it. Now the couple has been judged guilty on charges of slavery, the first such legal decision of its kind in Colombia for a practice that my wifeimagines was relatively common in the recent past (and still exists in other countries that are in the earlier stages of the agrarian-urban transition, like Haiti), despite the news coverage's insistence on characterizing the case as "aberrant". In the case at hand, the couple received a rural family’s daughter as a “favor”, and assured them that the child would receive all the benefits of an urban, wealthy upbringing. Instead she worked from dawn to dusk and beyond, every day for her entire childhood, cleaning the house, making food, and getting sexually abused by the father and his brothers. The child was beaten if she did her work in a way that the family didn’t like, and was severely punished when she began to teach herself how to read.
At any rate, it seems that good prevailed in this case, and the conscientious daughter did the right thing (though it cost her the hatred and estrangement of the rest of the family). The parents must now pay economic and moral reparations (the latter consisting in putting the slave girl back in touch with her real family, and the former in back pay for all those years of work). My limited understanding of the Colombian legal system and general mentality gives me the impression that such punishments are common. Even in cases of war crimes and such, the sentence for the perpetrator often focuses on the idea of reparation of wrongs done, as opposed to receiving sheer punishment or suffering in return for a crime. This is probably for the better—a country at war cannot afford to add more brutality into the mix by harsh, nasty sentencing for offenders, and righting wrongs is more effective than vengeance to achieve a lasting peace. And I would never advocate the arbitrary, counterproductive penal system of the USA, where petty drug offenders get brutalized by hardened prisoners, while the stuffed suits that brought down our entire economy receive a slap on the wrist.
Still though, in a case like this my Puritan US roots make me wonder if reparation is the right tack. Personally I’d like to see these slaveowners made to suffer. They robbed a girl of her youth, of her humanity, of her very body and sexual organs. If it were up to me, they’d be sent to a brutal US-style prison to be anally raped with broom handles and razor blades and other such objects. Justice should not usually be about making an example of people, but in this case, as in the many cases of impunity and brash abuse that plague Colombia, I’d like to see a clear statement that these things won’t be tolerated. All too often I feel that the worst people, doing the worst things, are then judged lightly by generally open-minded, forgiving souls, and so other bad eggs get the idea that they can get away with things like massacres, embezzling, paramilitary violence, and now even slavery.
I do not necessarily believe that only bad people do bad things. But this is all the more reason for severity, at least in certain emblematic cases. If we are all indeed capable of such monstrosities, then brute fear of punishment has an important role to play in keeping our worst demons in line.