Respect for the victim, respect for the victimizer

Laura Droege’s post touches on one of the key skills a trial judge like me needs. See if you can discern what it is as you read this very short piece.

Laura Droege's blog

In Louise Penny’s excellent mystery Bury Your Dead, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is taking an extended leave from his job after a terrible disaster. He is visiting a friend in Quebec and happens upon a crime scene. He realizes at once that it is a murder investigation, and listens as two young officers discuss the victim.

“He hasn’t begun smelling yet,” said the young officer. “Those make me want to puke.”

Gamache took a breath and exhaled, his breath freezing as soon as it hit the air. But he said nothing. This officer wasn’t his to train in the etiquette of the recently dead, in the respect necessary when in their presence. In the empathy necessary to see the victim as a person, and the murderer as a person. It wasn’t with cynicism and sarcasm, with dark humor and crass comments a killer was caught. He was caught by…

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22 Responses to Respect for the victim, respect for the victimizer

  1. Jeannie says:

    That IS a really good post, Laura. I like the quote very much. The word “empathy” was what jumped out at me, or perhaps “humility”: the ability to recognize that either the victim or the victimizer could be me; I’m not different or better or more special. I’m not sure that’s what you’re referring to as a key skill in your role as judge, Tim, but that’s what struck me.

    • Tim says:

      I was thinking about the limitations of seeing people as anything other than human beings. As soon as that happens, it affects my ability to do my job well whether dealing with those who are the victims of a crime or those who committed the crime. It carries over into non-criminal cases too.

    • Laura Droege says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jeannie. Seeing everyone as a human being is one of Gamache’s strong points, as is his ability to remain impartial as he analyzes the various suspects. If he fails to empathize with the killer (and put himself in the killer’s shoes, so to speak), the investigation will not go well.

  2. Elizabeth-Anne says:

    I guess I have to be the bad guy ( somebody has to do it ! ), but some crimes/criminals are so horrific, unwarranted and brutal, that any thoughts of ‘their’ humanity flies out of the window with me. I am not an angel or a saint, and I have a laundry list of my own failings and sins, that said, I am not a serial killer who cuts babies out of women ( Sharon Tate ), molests children, rapes old ladies then slits their throats. I am not saying we should bring the chain gang back, but my heart will always be with the victims, not the victimizers.

    • Tim says:

      The Bible is clear, we are to comfort the afflicted.

      The passage Laura quotes from in that novel is on a different topic, though; seeing the perpetrator as something other than human interferes with dealing with them as their crimes deserve, and can even interfere with bringing them to justice in the first place.

    • Laura Droege says:

      I have a tendency to sympathize far more with the victim than the killer, too. It’s compassionate and right to comfort the afflicted.

      But bringing legal justice is a far different matter. Bringing someone to justice requires a knowledge that even the most horrible criminal is still human, and therefore behaves in accordance to human ways (no supernatural skills, for example) and in predictable ways, as well. When the investigators and judges lose their ability to try to see the killer’s humanity, all legal impartiality is lost and important decisions are made based on emotion (usually a desire to avenge the victim), not reason.

  3. But how do you turn it off? How do you keep your distance – your sanity?

    • Tim says:

      Partly it’s a matter of practice and experience. At least that’s how I’ve seen it develop for me in my career.

    • Laura Droege says:

      I’ve wondered that, too. I’ve sure it’s difficult for those who see the absolutely worst things people can do to one another. (Recently, I was reading a book about the Holocaust and there was a photo of a soldier who liberated a camp, crouched down, obviously shaken to the core by what he was seeing.) But in a sense, that difficulty re-enforces that person’s humanity; there’s something wrong with us if we DON’T struggle with what we’ve seen. With experience and practice, some people, like Tim and the fictional Gamache, can develop that sense of common humanity and judicial neutrality that are necessary for justice. (I hope that makes sense!)

  4. Erica M. says:

    One of the things we discuss at church is recognizing that everyone is made in the image of God. They may be distorting that image with their actions, but they still have that image in them.

  5. Pastor Bob says:

    While working with a local police department as a chaplain, I saw many things that would curl one hair. It was very hard to voice what was felt on the spot, those that did drew a scolding on the scene and carefully worded scolding later. I was able to control my words, and later guided others in helping the victims, and the relatives. I must confess that I am not that strong, weeping later, yelling at the walls, God gave me the strength to be strong and stay strong.

    I watched a crime drama show and saw the small city police officer refer to the victim as “the vic,” similar to the big city police departments. The medical examiner scolded him strongly, these words stuck out: ” That was a very discourteous thing to say say! This is a person, and we must not lose sight of that. I would recommend that you remember the callous way you just treated the dead, because you don’t want to do that again.”

    Talking with the family was hard. Comforting the surviving victims was not easier. It did not get easier when on staff in a hospital as a chaplain. How to comfort those who are hurting, and try to give them a reason for hope and strength. Through all of this, a key point stuck out –
    These are all people, God’s creations, HIS PEOPLE. Do not treat them as you wish to be treated, treat them better. They need an extra touch, an extra little bit to help them through this tough spot.

    The impact, one victim’s older sibling decided to follow a call into the ministry.
    (Getting misty thinking about this….)

    Today I teach the children I work with (Christian and not) the important “{ R }” word —-
    Don’t scroll to it yet!!

    This one word close gaps
    This one word build bridges
    This one word secures friendships

    This one words when used properly prevent problems
    This one word will repair this gone wrong
    This one word will guide us

    This one word reflects Jesus Christ better than all other singe words
    This one word is love in action

    This word is


    • Elizabeth-Anne says:

      When I was a young woman in college, not yet 20, I was assaulted on the NY subway system going home to my extremely disadvantaged neighborhood – I lived there with my mother as she could not pay higher rent, and we stood out like sore thumbs. Prior to this I had been pickpocketed of my bus pass a number times, and had two chains ripped off my neck, but never injured.

      In 1980 I was not so fortunate. Two guys got on the subway and could not believe their eyes when they saw me, very easy pickings for that area, based on color, my weight, height and probably nervousness as I knew they were about to do something bad.

      They did. Once the train doors opened I had hoped to get to the staircase before them as my boyfriend waited on the street below, but they were faster and without a word, flung me down the stairs. I had a 14K Sacred Heart pendant and chain around my neck, they could have easily ripped that off and ran, but they opted to throw me down the stairs first and ask questions later. They wanted my tote bag ( which contained my keys and a pen only, not a solitary penny ). They demanded the bag when I reached the bottom the steps, my glasses flying and my head throbbing from the concussion I got, I hit one with my bag, and when he went for his knife, I tossed the bag in fear, the grabbed it, and ran.

      Long story short, I like them came from a disadvantaged background, I had no father at home growing up, a physically abusive mother, I was molested twice before the age of 5 and I was a social pariah due to being the only kid of a certain color, nationality and religion, so right now, I realize that many will consider my attackers as ‘ children of God ‘ too, but once again I say, we need to focus on the victim not the ones who are harming others, especially the sociopaths who will never feel shame or regret.

      • Tim says:

        Elizabeth-Anne, your experience has been horrible, and I am glad you have literally lived to tell about it. I don’t know that I would ever expect a victim (and I see many at work) to be able to deal with those who victimize others in a way that is not borne from the victimization itself.

        Police and judges are supposed to be able to handle the situations they are faced with precisely because we are not personally involved. If ever i am, or even if it touches too closely to something I have gone through so that i have a bias, then I am to take myself off the case – and that’s what I do. Victims don’t have that choice, of course.

        • Elizabeth-Anne says:

          Thanks Tim for your compassionate answer. In my case, I am now 53, so we are talking about something that happened 34 years ago and for the most part I think very little of it, the majority of the scars I bear are from the non stop verbal assaults from my mother telling me I was her worst mistake, that I was found in the trash, that I am a freak ( from that clergy member ), who wanted you anyhow ?, that I am stupid, fat, ugly, etc.

          I think you are probably very right or at least in my case you are, the victim will generally or always look at crimes/injustice thru different eyes, though that said the super highly empathetic types such as myself bleed for others as well, even complete stranger’s and animals pain and misery affects us.

        • Laura Droege says:

          Elizabeth-Anne, this is in response to your comment and story. First of all, thank you for sharing what happened to you. I’ve never been through anything like that, and I am truly sorry that you did. No one should have to endure that. My heart hurts for you and everything that you’ve been through. I wouldn’t expect you to be able to view offenders the same way as a police officer or judge or police chaplain should be able to view them, and I hope the quote didn’t seem to imply that everyone ought to be able to do that.

    • Laura Droege says:

      Pastor Bob, I have the utmost respect for those who are chaplains to the police, soldiers, etc. That takes tremendous strength to deal with all the horrible things that happen in this world, and to listen to the emotions of everyone involved. Certainly God provides strength, but it would still be a hard, hard job.

  6. Ruth says:

    This really touches my heart from a different perspective. I am teacher, preps to year 12 (our last high school year before college ). So many times injustice, bullying, abuse in home situations, confusion about the truth, sometimes appalling behavior from students etc fills up emotional and teaching time. How do you keep perspective when you teach the child, deal with the parents, deal with other teachers, deal with negative behaviors that bring wrath on one of your class, or your own children at school? You are in the middle of the play, never on the edge.
    You empathize, bleed, pray, and rejoice with each little step all the children make, you love them to bits, at least I do, and looking for why they behave as they do gives me courage to keep at it, it is a wonderful, wonderful privelige to teach tinies, tweens, and nearly oh so grown ups!
    I find it needs a heart for all. The worse a child is, without fail there is a home or developmental problem causing grief, which comes out in some dreadful ways, and yet, that child, who has made someone a victim, is a victim too, so it takes perspective. To see the victim and care for him, and see the other child and care for him too, because if we can help just with understanding and never condemnation, many a child can be shocked into better responses because a teacher CARES and can be trusted, which many children never do, trust, that is.
    I couldn’t imagine how you cope Tim, my decisions and actions are considered, but, I can do many things you would not be allowed, I think, in your position. I have great respect for what you do, glad I have a much easier row to hoe!

    • Tim says:

      I think the classroom situation is much like the courtroom, Ruth. We each deal with people we are responsible for in some way, and these people have gone through things we will never know, let alone understand completely. yet our responsibilities to them are not lessened just because we don’t know all the details involving their lives.

      • Ruth says:

        Very true, we do what we can within the limitations placed on us by our situations. Being responsible for others is a tough calling, and our duty of care never lessens no matter the complications. I’m sure you have been able to help many through difficult times.
        I have a different access to more time for some things i think, as I see children over the course of years, some of them from baby care, kinder, primary school and right through to year 12, and then I have worked with some of them. Never told a young adult that I’ve changed their nappies in early child care days!!
        Being in a community for a long time, and as a CRT, and other child care roles, I’ve been able to follow and support quite a lot of children all the way to adulthood and beyond…the joy of my particular situation.

        • Laura Droege says:

          Being able to see children as they grow is a gift, Ruth. So often, teachers (and other adults) here in the states only see that child for one school year. That’s it. It might even be less than one year if the child moves. And they’re left wondering: did I make a difference? What happened to them? So you’re in a great position, Ruth, and I’m happy for you!

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