All well and familiar as winter makes itself known

Skipping town on a balmy evening late last week, a passing glance at the early-flowering camellias and more than a hint of vernal equinox in the birdsong, it was possible for a moment to imagine the winter had passed us by. But, of course, we know better than that. The seasons will have their way: delayed, subdued, overwrought, vengeful ... eventually they make themselves known.

So in some respects at least this polar blast that has cut off much of the region and laid its vast white greatcoat over the landscape is a welcome end to the phony overtures of an early spring. We can now shiver, mind the black ice, hunker down over soup and winter stews and generally resign ourselves to the notion that all is well and familiar with the world.

Attempting to return south in the past couple of days has been a salutary reminder of the ferocity of nature, and also of the fragility of our dominion over it. However inconvenient, it has been almost impossible to get back into Dunedin - with the airport closed and passage along the northern motorway severely compromised.

The world has not ended. It transpires that inconvenience is not a life-threatening condition.

With modern technology, it is surprising what can be achieved at a distance. But now the sun has returned to eastern parts of the country, and the thaw begun, we can complete the return journey and marvel from above as we pass down over the length of the island at the crumpled but crisp linen-laid peaks of the Southern Alps.

These past couple of days of enforced lay-off have afforded a certain amount of time for reading and contemplating, but even here, on the opposite side of the world, it has been hard to shuck off the awful gloom that events in Norway have cast upon the condition known as "human". Anders Behring Breivik cannot begin to claim allegiance to it.

How can any human being deliberately and cold-bloodedly murder scores of young innocent people?

Breivik, as his self-styled manifesto - 2083: A European Declaration of Independence - reveals, considers himself a martyr to an anti-Islam cause. So he personally executes 68 young, defenceless Norwegians on the Utoya island to prove it?

And a number more innocents in the government district of Oslo?

What a piece of work is a man.

How "brave", how grotesquely twisted, how monstrous extreme ideology makes a person. There will be, not unnaturally, outrage should Breivik, as is anticipated, try to turn his trial into a platform for promoting his insane and despicable views.

And there will be fury over the fact that, under Norwegian law, should he be found guilty, he will apparently face a maximum of 21 years in prison. There will be calls to reform the law, to get tough, to deliver an altogether more vengeful form of justice.

Should it come to pass, that is entirely understandable, but it is never sound practice to generalise from the specific when it comes to making or reforming law. There are always exceptional cases which need exceptional treatment; some criminals are beyond redemption and must be dealt with accordingly. Nobody really has much of an argument with this.

In this country, however, the balance of unproductive, unsafe, uneconomic and, unfortunately, populist policies have held too much sway in recent years. Happily, there are signs of a thaw in this tendency, too.

Good on Deputy Prime Minister Bill English for leading the charge as he did a month or two back when he said: "Prisons are a fiscal and moral failure.

And building more of them on a large scale is something I don't think any New Zealander wants to see. They want a safer community and they want protection from the worst elements of criminal behaviour, but they don't want to be a prison colony ... It's the fastest rising cost in government in the last decade and in my view we shouldn't build any more of them."

There are indications that even Corrections Minister Judith Collins has begun to see the light.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in the Listener which points out the incarceration rate in New Zealand rose from 119 per 100,000 people in 1992 to 203 now. And contrary to the widespread perception - for which the Sensible Sentencing Trust, and the media, must take a deal of credit - crime overall has stabilised in this country since 1995-96. The article in question is headlined "Senseless Sentencing".

Someone should start a pressure group.

Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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