Excerpts from The Crime of Punishment by Karl Menninger, Viking Press, 1969.

It is a curious thing, first called to my attention by my colleague, Dr. Sydney Smith, that in juvenile cases where the question of punishment comes up there seems to be a tacit assumption that the child who has gotten into trouble has somehow miraculously escaped previous experiences of punishment. One hears some vengeful judges declaiming against the wickedness of youth and the waywardness of adolescents and the need for stern punishment as if the child had never had any. Dr. Smith has said eloquently:
Granted there are instances in which children have been reared in an atmosphere of inconsistency where value training of any kind was entirely missing; but even in these cases, it is the lack of loving guidance and structure rather than the lack of punitive retribution that has triggered the behavioral manifestations of delinquency. In a high percentage of court cases, there is evidence that the child has met with punishment that has not only been frequent but in many cases excessive. In fact, one of the sources of the child's own inadequate development is the model of open violence provided by the parent who has resorted repeatedly to corporal punishment, usually because of his own limited imagination. This indoctrination into a world where only might makes right and where all strength is invested in the authority of the mother or of the father not only makes it easy for the child to develop aggressive patterns of behavior but makes him emotionally distant and distrustful.

In our book, Love Against Hate, my wife and I tried to suggest how this vicious circle of vengeance evokes vengeance, and evoked vengeance tends to be perpetuated not only in and out of the courtroom and jails but within the family. Clinical experience has indicated that where a child has been exposed early in his live to episodes of physical violence, whether he himself is the victim or ... the witness, he will often later demonstrate similar outbursts of uncontrollable rage and violence of his own. Aggression becomes an easy outlet through which the child's frustrations and tensions flow, not just because of a simple matter of learning that can be just as simply unlearned, not just because he is imitating a bad behavior model and can be taught to imitate something more constructive, but because these traumatic experiences have overwhelmed him. His own emotional development is too immature to withstand the crippling inner effects of outer violence. Something happens to the child's character, to his sense of reality, to the development of his controls against impulses that may not later be changed easily but which may lead to reactions that in turn provoke more reactions - one or more of which may be "criminal." Then society reacts against him for what he did, but more for what all of us have done - unpleasantly - to one another. Upon him is laid the iniquity of us all...

The whole question of reading the nature of the malignant (or otherwise) intent in the offender's mind is one which the public is loath to refer to psychiatrists. [P]sychiatrists .... have even greater doubts about the ability of anyone to determine accurately anyone's intent. If the criminal lacks a special self evident excuse, a King's X of some kind, the vengeance of the people will often rise like a windstorm and sweep away all humanity, intelligence, Christianity, and common sense.

The scientists, and penologist and sociologists I know, take it for granted that rehabilitation - not punishment, not vengeance in disguise - is the modern principle of control. But in practice it is not. In the law it is not. Somebody is being "kidded."


For many years the essence of vengeance against the offender has been implicit in the upbringing of the child. Perhaps it is too farfetched an illustration, but is there possibly some connection between the thesis of the popular German nursery rhyme by Hoffman, Der Struwelpeter, and the ethics and the social philosophy of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s? Take this verse from the version of the nursery rhyme by Mazine Kumin:

Now look at Konrad the little thumb-sucker,
Ach! But his poor mama cries when she warns him
The tailor will come for his thumbs if he sucks them.
Quick he can cut them off, easy as paper.
Out goes the mother and wupp! Goes the thumbkin in.
Then the door opens. Enter the tailor.
See in the picture the terrible tongue in
His grinning red mouth! In his hands the great shears.
Just as she told him, the tailor goes klipp und klapp.
Eight-fingered Konrad has learned a sad lesson.
Therefore, says Fraulein, shaking her chignon,
Suck you must not or the tailor will chop!
This quaint nursery rhyme seems funny to some. It has been considered good for children by millions of intelligent, civilized people. But its sadistic, vengeful essence is obvious. And surely we are all aware of the unjustified, unexcused, unadvertised cruelty to children that abounds in some levels of society.


Before we can diminish our sufferings from the ill-controlled aggressive assaults of fellow citizens, we must renounce the philosophy of punishment, the obsolete, vengeful penal attitude. In its place we would seek a comprehensive, constructive social attitude - therapeutic in some instances, restraining in some instances, but preventive in its total social impact.

In the last analysis this becomes a question of personal morals and values. No matter how glorified or how piously disguised, vengeance as a human motive must be personally repudiated by each and every one of us. This is the message of old religions and new psychiatries. Unless this message is heard, unless we ... can give up our delicious satisfactions in opportunities for vengeful retaliation on scapegoats, we cannot expect to preserve our peace, our public safety, or our mental health.


But the punitive attitude persists. And just so long as the spirit of vengeance has the slightest vestige of respectability, so long as it pervades the public mind and infuses its evil upon the statute books of the law, we will make no headway toward the control of crime. We cannot assess the most appropriate and effective penalties so long as we seek to inflict retaliatory pain.

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