Friday, August 21, 2009

Power of Compassion Broke the Cycle of Vengence Today

Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill

I have been noodling for a little while about a post I might write some day about a belief I share with many others that acts of altruism or compassion are not simply expressed and then lost. It is the belief that these acts of compassion or selfless kindness feed a reservoir that promulgates or spurs further acts of altruism. I had hoped to illustrate the point with some randonneuring examples.

I was planning to write about how I tested a corollary to this theory in my college Research Psychology class thirty years ago. The short version is that we approached strangers on the street and asked for directions and variously reinforced them. We found a difference, though not statistically significant, and of course our methodology was suspect. The idea, however, that altruism begets altruism stuck with me.

I was planning to draw this together with randonneuring by telling of a few unselfish gestures. The first is when the randonneur I'd been riding a few shorter brevets with told me I should not ride with him on my next longer brevet: my 400k attempt. John Vincent told me that he'd slow me down, and that I should ride with others so as to increase my chance of success. Riding with him, his logic went, decreased my opportunities.

It is a small thing in the scheme of the world, but it touched me: his generosity.

Then when I attempted my first 400k and ended up riding with another new acquaintance, Tom Russell, I could tell Tom was hoping to finish in under 24 hours. And given his pace, he'd have had no problem. As I reported in my Oregon Randonneurs Alsea Falls 400k Ride Report, Tom chose to hang back with me and my slower pace instead even though he knew he'd finish in more than 24 hours.

Is this a big deal? Not really, but it touched me again. In the race for time and accomplishment today, it is refreshing when someone steps back from these expectations to just lend a hand. The question then is will I extend their acts to fellow randonneurs as they have done. I can only say I hope to.

So as you see, these examples didn't add up to a complete post so much as a notion I'd been noodling.

Then today when I heard Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's statement about his releasing the sole person convicted of the Lockerbie bombing on grounds of compassion, I felt compelled to post.

After a nearly endless cycle of cries for vengeance in so many circumstances all around the globe, I was hearing on my radio a departure from vengeance and opening up to compassion. And not with bashfulness or apology. Kenny MacAskill called upon the Scottish people's heritage of honoring humanity and openly called upon Scottish values of compassion and mercy.

I couldn't believe my ears it was so extraordinary.

Here are his concluding remarks:

“Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands. The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade.

“Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.

"However, Mr Al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.

“In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity.

“It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.

“The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.

“Mr Al Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.

“But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.

“Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available.

“Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown.

“Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.

“For these reasons - and these reasons alone - it is my decision that Mr Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.”

Click here to watch Secretary MacAskill's full statement.

Then this evening I had dinner with several of my wife's Indian relatives. When I asked them whether they had heard MacAskill's statement, we got to discussing death penalty cases and how they are viewed. One of them said that he believed that everyone, by being human, has the capacity to change. Even those who have committed evil acts are not themselves evil. Each of us has the capacity to change. If we don't believe that, where does that leave us?

Driving home from dinner I heard another radio show: about non-violence and Martin Luther King and Gandhi. One of King's followers talked about the absolute requirement that to succeed in their campaign against racism and unjust laws they had to sincerely listen to their foes and even love their foes, all of them. She talked about how she led them in a song and added a verse about loving "even Bull Connor" the infamous "member of the Ku Klux Klan, and a staunch advocate of racial segregation" according to Wikipedia. If they didn't believe in their foes' capacity to change, then non-violence fell in upon itself.

A powerful set of insistent truths for one day.

I am awed by Kenny MacAskill's commitment to the truth that we all deserve compassion. It is consistent with Gandhi's Satyagraha or "insistence on truth". The thing that is startling is that while we were all taught about compassion and the Golden Rule as children, living by such a seemingly simple dictum is rare and hard. Kenny MacAskill reminded us that while it is hard, it is possible as individuals and as peoples.

Thank you for indulging a not-so-randonneurish post. I have simply been inspired by compassion and selflessness both big and small. And I believe that small leads to big.

Keep it, give it,



  1. Beautiful post. I too believe that this world has gotten so caught up in revenge that we lose sight of this simple idea of compassion for other living things. I commend the Scottish gov. for bringing to light the idea of compassion. And you are right that acts of altruism spur other acts of altruism. Just reading the words of Secretary MacAskill spur me to ask myself "what acts of kindness have I engaged in today?"

  2. Yep, a very good topic and post. Thanks for bringing it up to counter the media's focus on outrage from the victims' families. In light of this line above "If they didn't believe in their foes' capacity to change, then non-violence fell in upon itself" I wonder about the howls of outrage raised when Michael Vick was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles. Seems almost as if some people wouldn't want Vick to change, wouldn't want him to discover remorse because it would deny them a target.

  3. Haven't had the privilege yet of riding with you on some brevet out there (and talking with you ...), but I am very much looking forward to it! Thank you for being so eloquent in this matter. Will be a good subject tonight when I'll have dinner with my Scottish friends.

  4. Thanks for speaking out! Great posting and as a European I'm very pleased to hear there are still independent and compassionat thinkers with their integrity intact in the land of the free, home of the brave. "However, Mr Al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power."
    Quite shocking claim. I think it's called CANCER! Someone been missning their sience classes.