Tonight Nils Christie, renowned Norwegian criminologist, gave at talk called ‘Restoring Peace, Restoring Neighbourhoods’.
Professor Christie, author of books such as ‘Crime Control as Industry: Towards GULAGs, Western Style?’ is well respected in criminal justice circles for his insight into justice systems and promotion of restorative, community-based responses to crime and conflict.
His manner was what one might expect from a brilliant, elderly scholar and thinker – he made self-deprecating comments about being unable to read his notes or not knowing how long he’d been talking, made politically-incorrect statements and admonished people to do stop doing such things as moving away. He reminded me very much of my late, brilliant great-uncle – someone who could get away with saying certain things because his experience and wisdom were so apparent.
Christie began his talk by letting his audience know where his obsession with criminology and justice began. He talked about growing up in Nazi-occupied Germany and the shocking realization, after the war was over, that not only had Norwegians joined the Nazi party, but there had been a concentration camp in Norway and guards there had killed and abused prisoners.
As a young researcher, Christie was involved in studying what had happened at these Norwegian camps. He interviewed survivors and guards and noticed a striking difference in how prisoners were perceived between the guards who killed and those who did not.
Essentially, the guards who killed prisoners were those who saw them as wild animals and sub-human species. Those who did not kill or abuse the prisoners, on the other hand, were those who saw the suffering of the prisoners, who recognized the starvation, filth, disease and, most importantly, the humanity of their charges.
This research gave Christie the conviction that conflict can only be overcome and addressed when we ‘see the other person as a person’ and ‘come so close to each other as to feel the other’s vibrations’.
He has long been advocating for a justice system which would allow victims and offenders (though he balks at those categories) to be fully present and heard with each other – and for communities to take control of, and responsibility for, the conflict among themselves.
Much food for thought.