The Quality of Mercy

When should we forgive or show mercy to wrongdoers? Three recent cases - the compassionate release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the reinstatement of American football player Michael Vick, and the first public expression of remorse by former Lt. William Calley, who in 1968 ordered the My Lai massacre - give ample reason to contemplate that question.

PRINCETON – The recent release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, sparked outrage. Around the same time, the Philadelphia Eagles, an American football team, offered a second chance to former star Michael Vick, who was convicted of running a dog-fighting operation in which unsuccessful fighters were tortured and killed. And William Calley, who commanded the platoon that massacred hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai in 1968, has now broken his media silence and apologized for his actions. 

When should we forgive or show mercy to wrongdoers? Many societies treat crimes involving cruelty to animals far too lightly, but Vick’s penalty – 23 months in prison – was substantial. In addition to imprisonment, he missed two years of his playing career, and millions of dollars in earnings. If Vick were never to play football again, he would suffer punishment well beyond that imposed by the court.

Vick has expressed remorse. Perhaps more importantly, he has turned words into deeds, volunteering at an animal shelter and working with the Humane Society of the United States to oppose dog fighting. It is hard to see what good would come from not allowing him to complete his rehabilitation and return to doing what he does best.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

To read this article from our archive, please log in or register now. After entering your email, you'll have access to two free articles from our archive every month. For unlimited access to Project Syndicate, subscribe now.


By proceeding, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, which describes the personal data we collect and how we use it.

Log in;

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated cookie policy and privacy policy.