Watching or reading the news is almost always a depressing experience. Every news bulletin I watch or every newspaper that I read is certain to have at least one thing that makes me reflect on what an appalling world we live in and how beyond salvation we appear to be as a species. Every day brings some new terrorist or government outrage; wars are being fought and atrocities committed more quickly than the news of them can be brought to the unfeeling world on our 24 hour rolling news channels. People starve and die of treatable diseases. We know this because we watch it happening on live on TV with rolling subtitles underneath telling us of other breaking news. It's horrific, but in some ways we have become numbed through exposure. We are inured to the horror.
Some stories are just so awful though that they can't be ignored or dismissed with a sad shake of the head and some vague intention to give more to charity. Some stories are so shocking that they force you to sit up and suck in all of the dreadful details..... and this story is one of them.
I simply cannot conceive what would make someone lock their own daughter up in the cellar; to pretend to the world that she was dead whilst systematically raping her over the course of decades. He fathered seven children in all by his own child. It's chilling. When one of those children died as an infant, he disposed of the corpse by dropping it into an incinerator, leaving the mother and her other children to look after themselves in the cellar with no access to medical attention. Job done. He fostered or adopted three of those children with his apparently unsuspecting wife and left the other three to rot with their poor mother in that soundproofed cell. As his second family expanded, he periodically extended the cellar further out under his back garden. It has a little kitchen, a toilet and a bathroom with tiles decorated with snails and octopus motifs. It's an awful, awful story.
And what happens now? A 73 year old man will go to prison and the media interest will begin to die down, leaving some broken people to try to rebuild their shattered lives: his wife, his presumably irreparably damaged daughter and those poor unsuspecting kids - his children. His grandchildren. Apparently the 5 year old was moved to tears at the ride in the police car away from the cellar, the only home he has ever known. He wasn't upset - he'd only ever seen cars before on the television, and could not believe that now he was travelling in one. He was excited. What happens to that child?
We're all nice liberal types around here, but here's a question for you: it looks as though Josef Fritzl faces a maximum sentence of fifteen years. Fifteen years for subjecting his daughter to that twenty-four year ordeal. Does that sound like enough to you? Is that enough of a punishment for the pain this man has inflicted on his own flesh and blood?
Well what would you do with him then?
I've been wrestling with this all day today. My gut reaction is that fifteen years is derisory, but the wishy-washy liberal in me is struggling with the idea that we can make a special case, even of this man, and change the rules for a more fitting punishment. And what would that punishment be? How long would be enough? 20 years? Should "life" mean "life"? Is incarceration even enough of a punishment? No? Perhaps we could hurt him the way that he hurt his children? Would it make anything better? An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? How would that work exactly? What about the death penalty? Would a judicially sanctioned murder achieve anything? Would it bring back those lost years or give those kids any sense of justice?
No, no, no.
These are difficult questions and I don't have any answers, but the more I think about it, the less comfortable I feel with any of the options on the table. Fifteen years doesn't seem enough, but changing the law or moving outside it to look for alternatives doesn't seem to achieve anything either. Society might have created this monster, this intense humming of evil, but I'm sure he was nice to his mother and paid his bills on time. What choice does a civilized society have but to obey its own laws?
Perhaps it's enough for now that those children have been freed from that cellar and can try to start their lives again and will never have to see that man again. It's hardly ideal, but what alternative do they have?
What would you do with him?