Bad Astronomy

The purpose of punishment

What is the purpose of punishment?

Seriously, I’m curious. I suppose it breaks down into two broad categories: it teaches the person punished not to transgress laws, and it is used as an example to others not to do the same. Punishment also serves other purposes, such as satisfying people’s need for retribution and justice.

That’s all well and good in theory, but things get a little fuzzy when applied in practice.

UK writer Jon Ronson presents the case of Gary McKinnon. As a young man, McKinnon was a UFO nut. Suspecting that the U.S. government was hiding secrets of alien technology, he hacked into the computers of NASA, the Pentagon, and more. His intent was probably not malicious, and he claims any damage he might have done was accidental. Moreover, McKinnon has Asperger’s syndrome, and can become obsessive over certain things, such as compulsive internet use.

So, what do we do with Mr. McKinnon? He did in fact hack into those systems, and knew what he did was highly illegal. However, he claims his intent was not malicious, and the evidence appears to back that up to large extent. Do we punish him, and how to do so?

Given treatment and adequate supervision, he probably won’t repeat his actions, so punishment won’t have any real efficacy on him specifically. Punishment for him might sway other hackers from doing any harm – “make an example of him”, as the saying goes – but I suspect that hackers know well what awaits them if caught. However, if Mr. McKinnon is not punished, it may assuage the fears of hackers, tacitly encouraging them to continue (and allowing them to claim later they were not trying to be malicious, using McKinnon as a precedent).

It’s a tough call, in my opinion.

Still, I have to wonder about how the U.S. is tackling this. McKinnon is a UK citizen, and under the new laws pushed through in the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. can demand extradition for McKinnon, forcing him to be tried in the U.S. under our laws. The U.S. has done exactly this, and the UK has acquiesced. As things stand now, McKinnon will be forcibly relocated to the U.S. to stand trial for what the government calls “the biggest US military hack of all time”.

The thing is, if convicted McKinnon will go to jail. If prison were just incarceration, then I might be swayed that this is reasonable and fair retribution. But we all know that prison is far, far more than that. A lot of pretty nasty stuff will await McKinnon if (realistically, given the political climate, when) he goes to jail. For anyone, that sort of fate is terrifying. For someone with Asperger’s, it’s overwhelming. He has apparently been considering suicide.

To me, given what I know, this situation is extremely difficult to judge. In many and perhaps most cases our criminal justice system is fair if somewhat overtaxed. But there are too many heartbreaking cases like McKinnon’s, where the black-and-white print of laws and procedures seems to lack the subtlety of real life. As a scientist, I know that the Universe rarely behaves in a plain and simple matter; there are always underlying effects, multiple causes, and complicated give-and-take that muddy most people’s clean version of reality. And humans can be far more complicated than the Universe at large.

I think we may have such a case here. Punishment must be meted out, but what should that punishment be? I fear the shockwave from the tip of our legal lash will transfer far too large a burden compared to what is warranted.