Dangerous Knowledge: The tempting proposition that mere mortals can acquire mastery over Good and Evil is as old as the book of Genesis. But, what the experts and professionals of our supposedly meritocratic society appear to have forgotten, and what every ordinary person understands, is that the Devil lies. And, as Phillip Smith/Traynor discovered long ago, it is the person most determined to do good who is most easily deceived.
THE BUREAUCRATIC STUFF-UP that sped Phillip Smith/Traynor on his way to Chile, Brazil, and from there, thankfully, into the handcuffs of the Brazilian Federal Police, has exposed one of the most perilous fault lines in New Zealand society.
On one side of the fault line stand the experts and professionals. On the other, ordinary New Zealanders: the laity.
In the modern meritocracy New Zealand believes itself to be, expertise and professionalism are supposed to trump the layperson’s “instincts”, “gut feelings” and “common sense”.
Like the priests and the pastors they have largely superseded, experts and professionals lay claim to specialist knowledge of the world. Their mastery of the modern, “scientific”, method of explaining the universe means that, all other things being equal, the judgement of the expert and the professional is supposed take precedence over the traditional prejudices and ignorant superstitions of “ordinary people”.
But, Phillip Smith/Traynor’s scandalous escape from custody will, almost certainly, turn out to have been facilitated by the judgements of the experts and professionals employed by, or contracted to, the Department of Corrections. Indeed, it is already pretty clear that had the advice of those ordinary New Zealanders caught up in the multiple tragedies of Smith’s offending been heeded, he would never have escaped from custody.
Ordinary people recoil in horror and disgust from the criminal acts for which Phillip Smith/Traynor was convicted.
Their instinctive response is the same as that of any social animal confronted with a deadly threat to the survival of its young: kill it if you can, or, if that proves impossible, drive it from your midst.
The gut-feeling of non-expert, non-professional New Zealanders is that the likes of Peter Smith/Traynor are irretrievably evil. As killers, abusers, manipulators and deceivers they must never, ever, be believed or trusted.
The common sense of ordinary Kiwis tells them that, if the possibility of judicial error requires them to rule out the hangman’s noose, then murderers and paedophiles should simply be locked up forever.
What part of “predatory child abuser” and “vicious murderer” do the Department of Corrections' experts and professionals not understand?
From the perspective of the experts and professionals, however, the judgement of ordinary Kiwis is as flawed as it is unjust. Paedophilia is a pathological condition over which the paedophile exercises little, if any, control. The proper, scientific, response to child abuse and abusers is, therefore, therapeutic – not punitive.
Human behaviour is not immutable. It can be modified, reoriented and, with the right sort of interventions, re-programmed. It is simply not necessary to lock up serious offenders in a cage and throw away the key. To the psychologists, counsellors and therapists at Corrections, Phillip Smith/Traynor was a suitable case for treatment.
But, as Smith/Traynor’s extraordinarily successful deception of his psychologists, counsellors and therapists makes chillingly clear, it was the experts’ and professionals’ judgement that was flawed.
Yes, with enormous effort and the deployment of a host of (scarce) resources, it might just be possible to wrap a paedophile around with sufficient protective layers to make his release from custody a viable and safe option. And, in the best of all possible worlds, that’s what our Justice System would attempt to do.
But, this is very far from being the best of all possible worlds. The wraparound option does not exist in New Zealand. So why, in its absence, did Smith/Traynor’s expert and professional team keep behaving as if it did? Was it because Smith/Traynor, understanding to perfection their deep emotional investment in the possibility of his behavioural redemption, encouraged them to construe his “model prisoner” charade as proof that they had, already, redeemed him?
Phillip John Smith aka Phillip Traynor: Irretrievably evil?
If that is, indeed, what happened, then I’m afraid you’ll have to put me down with the traditionally prejudiced and the ignorantly superstitious. A person capable of pretending to be rehabilitated, while all the time embracing the perversity he’s claiming to have vanquished, is evil personified.
The besetting sin of the expert and professional is their hubristic belief that everything in nature can and should be brought under human control. Like Adam and Eve, tempted in Eden with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they have fallen for the Devil’s fatal pitch: “In the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
All ordinary people know that the Devil lies.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 November 2014.