The suspect behind the murders on Taipei’s Mass Rapid Transit system’s Bannan Line, Cheng Chieh (鄭捷), was described by his university on Thursday as part of “our family.”
“Cheng is not just a sophomore at the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering who transferred to Tunghai University last summer, but a student who has made us realize overnight that everyone at Tunghai is our family, no matter how downcast or happy they appear to be. We love them, but we don’t love them enough,” the letter addressed to university faculty, staff and students read.
The words showed how the school has taken responsibility. It provides a stark contrast to other recent examples of statements put out by officials, politicians and media commentators which mercilessly condemn Cheng. Those statements about Cheng have a similar tone to that of the condemnation of the Philippines Coast Guard personnel who a year ago shot dead fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成) at sea: They treat Cheng as if he was not a national of this nation.
Along with the denouncements of Cheng came expressions of shock, sadness, anger and disbelief at the incident, and no doubt has been raised about whether the death sentence should be applied to Cheng.
The reactions reflect people’s intent to distance themselves from Cheng, whom they label a person with certain antisocial personality characteristics that they believe led him to commit the killing spree. They think that such a crime should not have happened in Taiwan. For people of this opinion, the death penalty is the easy way out.
However, one of the many weaknesses of this view is that there might have been unknown things which happened to him, motivating Cheng to commit this hideous crime — in which four people were killed and 24 injured in just four minutes — and this would make the crime more complex than just his character traits.
He should not be the only one to carry the blame. Putting him to death will not deter crimes like this, not only because using capital punishment as deterrent is questionable, but because any larger structural problems that might help shape criminal activity in the nation will still induce people to commit the crimes if they remain unaddressed.
Tunghai University’s letter read that it expected its students “to walk a step closer to friends, look out for them, and to talk to them more often.” The university said that a lesson learned from this crime was that “each one of us could be anyone’s angel.”
The reflection Tunghai University has offered on the incident provides food for thought.
There are many lessons to be learned from a homicide case. Taiwan could have learned some from the harm caused to society by previous homicide cases, but it has not.
It tends to blame a suspect rather than trying to figure out how the assailant arrived at the point of their crime. It thinks that the nation is getting safer and that victims and their families are consoled when a criminal is sentenced to death and when a death row inmate is executed.
The issues deserve our careful study. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer. Nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”