Today, invention and crime. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Why do we invent? Probably
because we so love the rush of being first with a
new idea. Invention is freedom; it's pleasure. If
necessity drove invention, we'd see far
more creative energy focused on those nasty
problems that we never manage to solve.
Take crime and punishment: We all want crime to go
away, yet despite every existing system of
punishment, crime remains. If invention were served
by necessity, this is where it would serve us.
A rare exception recently caught my eye. It's the
new idea of Restorative Justice. The idea
is to focus less on punishment and more on
restitution, healing, and rebuilding the community
in such a way that the crime won't be repeated.
That clearly strikes a nerve: Does it mean letting
offenders get away with it? No, Restorative Justice
does not mean evading jail with a simple
Australia is presently making widespread use of the
concept. In a very successful program, juvenile
offenders are made to face their victims, to digest
the harm they've done, and then to make authentic
restitution. The country is clearly feeling its
way, but the program appears to be working very
A newly-desegregated South Africa had to deal with
all the violence that'd gone on during apartheid.
They asked, "What's more important, punishing the
guilty or healing the nation?"
In an extraordinarily bold move, the new government
set up its Truth and Reconciliation
Commission. The aim was not the futile
exercise of jailing every White who'd ever treated
a Black unjustly, or vice versa. It was, instead, a
matter of healing years of wounds by identifying
wrongdoers and obtaining their amends.
One need only go on the Commission's web site to
find hundreds of very convincing messages from
South Africans expressing profound regret for the
pain they caused during those evil years. Justice,
in the sense of an eye for an eye, has not been
meted out, and a significant degree of
reconciliation has been achieved.
How far can this approach to repairing the damage
done by crime be taken? We don't know, of course.
But during recent years we've watched Serbs and
Kosovars, Israelis and Palestinians, British and
Irish, all claiming their pound of flesh in the
wake of each new offence. Whether or not
Restorative Justice could be made to work in these
cases, we don't yet know. What we do know is that
conventional responses have only spiraled into
Such anger, now and then, touches us all. What are
we really after when it does? Scalps? I doubt it.
We want an end to the damage; we want equity; we
want to assuage a victim's pain.
So here's a great rarity, a bold and creative
strategy for beginning to address the two things
any victim really needs: acknowledgement that a
wrong has been done, and restitution. Restorative
Justice may or may not be a workable response to
crime in the long run. But I bring it up because
it's one of the very rare examples in my experience
of an inventive response to absolute necessity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
There are many websites that deal with the concept of
Restorative Justice. See, for example, http://www.aic.gov.au/rjustice/
For information on the South African experience, see:
The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau (from an 1893
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.