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No Adequate Punishment

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A crime has no corresponding punishment in the rule of law.

This trope has been Launched!
Proposed By:
Theharbo on Dec 22nd 2018 at 2:52:39 PM
Last Edited By:
Theharbo on Feb 9th 2019 at 1:02:34 AM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

"We are not qualified to be your judges. We have no law that fits your crime."
Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Survivors:

For most of the world today, if you get caught doing a crime, you do the (sometimes metaphorical) time associated with the crime. The justice system is there to ensure you get a punishment that fits what you've done.

But in fiction where Big Bads can plot to Take Over the World or commit countless atrocities in pursuit of their goal, the heroes might find that there is no adequate punishment for the Big Bad's crimes. If they'd killed a person they'd have been charged with murder, but what if they caused a World-Wrecking Wave and spoiled the lands on top of the already uncountable death toll - how do you punish that? Good question, because often a crime with No Adequate Punishment is so unthinkably evil, bizarre, or stupid that literally no one in a position to mete out justice has had the forethought of what to actually do if someone went and did them.

Don't expect this to mean that they get Off on a Technicality since there Ain't No Rule though. In most cases, people who commit crimes like these are left to deal with the consequences of their actions, charged with something else in an attempt to at least get some measure of inadequate justice, or just outright killed to put a stop to further crimes on the pile. It's not justice, because their crime is such that there is no adequate justice to be had, but it's an attempt.

Reminder: If a crime has a 'The harshest punishment imaginable' it is not an example of this trope. On the other hand; If 'The harshest punishment imaginable' is invoked as a Plan B in a vain attempt to cover the crime, it is an example.

Contrast Failed Execution, No Sentence, in which the law does has an "adequate punishment" (in this case, death), but the fact that the executionee survives leads to the law being at odds of what to do, and There Should Be a Law for when someone believes what they have come across should be illegalized and punished by law, but isn't. May lead to an Obvious Rule Patch being subsequently applied in the form of a law specifically designed to mete out adequate punishment. Sub-Trope of Language Equals Thought, and related to Moral Event Horizon for actions which might have adequate punishment, but still serve to prove to the audience that there is no coming back from villainy for the character committing them.


Example

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     Comic Books 
  • In Astro City, Infidel's crimes include laying waste to the entire world and destroying it at least once. Unfortunately, he has been involved in so many historic events (including several in the future) that his longtime enemy Samaritan has been unable to come up with a punishment that would suit the crime without damaging the timeline. On the other hand, Infidel has been unable to find a way to kill Samaritan without causing similar damage. As a result, they've been at an impasse for years, so Infidel has agreed to go into retirement in a pocket dimension, while Samaritan agrees not to interfere with whatever he does there... for now, anyway.
     Film 
  • In Closely Watched Trains, a womanizing telegraphist stamps the legs and buttocks of a female co-worker using rubber stamps from the train station they work in. When the girl's outraged mother sees them, he takes her to the police and courts, who reveal that they can't do anything because he never forced or threatened her. Finally, a Nazi Party official (the film takes place in occupied Czechoslovakia), upon seeing that the stamps are written in German as well as Czech, has the telegraphist charged with "Desecration of the German Language".
     Literature 
  • In Harry Potter creating a Horcrux is considered the ultimate evil, beyond even using any of the three 'Unforgivable curses'note  which carry a life sentence in Azkaban with no parole, and yet the Wizarding world has no punishment for creating a Horcrux.. because creating one involves literally tearing parts off your soul, and they don't know of a way to make the punishment worse than that.
  • Implied in The Jaunt by Stephen King regarding a man who shoved his wife into a Portal Door with no exit coordinates. He tried to argue that he couldn't be tried for murder because there was no proof that the woman was dead, but the jury considered how infinitely worse it would be if she wasn't and ordered his execution anyway.
  • In Lord of the Rings: Treebeard's reaction to seeing Saruman having chopped down a good portion of his home forest lets the reader know just how unspeakable an action it is. They end up resorting to a Neutral No Longer and enacting Gaia's Vengeance by attacking Saruman's city of Isengard to, at the very least, put a halt to it.
    Treebeard: There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of men for this treachery.
  • In the Star Wars Legends Jedi Academy Trilogy, Kyp Durron stands trial for destroying a solar system. Mon Mothma acknowledges that while this makes him a mass murderer on par with the Emperor, there is no adequate law in the New Republic books to punish such a crime. Not helping is that he was under the influence of the ancient Sith lord Exar Kun (long story, don't ask) which muddies the question of if he was even in control of his actions. Mon Mothma declares that the only person who could make a proper judgement is the ranking Jedi master, Luke Skywalker. The later novel I, Jedi explored some of the massive problems with this decision.
  • From Things Fall Apart:
    If a clansman killed a royal python accidentally, he made sacrifices of ______ and performed an expensive burial ceremony such as was done for a great man. No punishment was prescribed for a man who killed the python knowingly. Nobody thought that such a thing could ever happen.
     Live Action TV 
  • Malcolm in the Middle has a comedic version of this show up in the episode Motivational Seminar; Reese joins a pack of dogs, and goes on a destructive spree after they make him his leader. He ends up being caught by the police in a chicken coop and brought back to his parents which leads to the following comment from the arresting officer:
    Police Officer: "It's hard to know exactly what happened, ma'am. He and his friends appeared to have had themselves quite a little party. They just don't train ya to handle a scene like that. The law's a little murky in this area, but when we figure out how to charge him... I'll be back."
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Survivors": A Nigh-Omnipotent ageless Actual Pacifist super being is attempting to live a normal life on a colony of a planet. When said colony comes under attack by 'a species of hideous intelligence that knew only agression and destruction' and his Human Alien wife is killed he, in a brief moment of anger, wipes out not just the attackers, but their entire species with a single thought in retaliation, and immediately afterwards has a major My God, What Have I Done? moment. Picard cannot even conceive of a punishment, and merely leaves the being alone on a planet in his self-imposed punishment.
    Picard: Captain's Log, stardate 43153.7 - We are departing the Rana system for Starbase 133. We leave behind a being of extraordinary power and conscience. I'm not certain if he should be praised or condemned; only... that he should be left alone.
  • On That '70s Show, Kelso enrolls in the police academy and does pretty badly on a test. He and the others break into the office that night to alter the answers only to get caught. The officer who catches them tells him there's no punishment for what he's doing because it was thought there was no one stupid enough to do it.
  • Torchwood: Miracle Day: Because no one can die anymore, many laws regarding life and death are rendered useless. A man strangled his wife into brain-death. Since she isn't dead and no one can die anymore, he can't be charged with murder or attempted murder. Assault is the only thing he can be charged with.
     Video Games 
  • The Hanar of Mass Effect apparently had no idea what to do when Jack Colony Dropped a space station onto their moon hard enough to make a new crater, and so they just charged her with 'Vandalism' instead - the same kind of charge one would get for breaking a couple windows, which makes it stand out on her List of Transgressions as being a case of Poke the Poodle.
     Web Comic 
  • The Order of the Stick: Vaarsuvius killed a quarter of all black dragons, and everyone related to them, including innumerable humans, including the entire Draketooth family. Roy tells V that he's incapable of either counseling or judging the elf.
    Roy: This is way over my head. It's too big.
     Real Life 
  • Draco was the first legislator of Athens and wrote the law so the punishment was death even for minor crimes. He's on record as stating that yes, the laws weren't fair because major crimes received the same punishment as minor ones, but he had no idea for A Fate Worse Than Death to punish the major crimes, and thus death, while inadequate, was still the closest it could get. And yes, his name is what gives us the term 'Draconian laws' in the present day.
  • According to Herodotus, the Persians believed that no man since the beginning of time had ever killed his own father, and that whenever this appeared to happen, it was evidence that the patricidal child was actually an impostor or changeling.
  • The history of "crimes against humanity" started with the abolition of the slave trade during the 19th Century, but was amended to include genocide after the Ottoman Empire's systematic murder of Armenians during the First World War and Nazi Germany's own murderous campaign against the Jews during the Second World War, the scale of which was never really seen before. The latter horror actually gave rise to the very word "genocide" to refer to it.
  • The ILOVEYOU virus, which was created in the Philippines on/after 2000, left Philippine law enforcement stumped since at the time, there was no suitable law that they could use to charge the creators of the virus. The options at the time was to either charge for the use of prepaid internet cards to access the internet (Which was barely related to the actual virus), or for malicious mischief (Which needs to prove intent, and one of the creators told law enforcement that he released the virus by accident). The lack of a proper law forced the National Bureau of Investigation to have the creators released with no charges, and later resulted in the passing of the E-Commerce Law to address hacking/malware problems.

Indexes: Crime and Punishment Tropes, Politics Tropes, Artistic License – Law, Failure Index

Feedback: 49 replies

Dec 22nd 2018 at 3:13:30 PM

Right, Remade Immeasurable Crime after discussion on that launch page. Heading to bed now, will respond to comments/add examples tomorrow.

Dec 22nd 2018 at 4:27:50 PM

I don't think this is a supertrope to The Punishment Is The Crime, nor this is a subtrope of Language Equals Thought.

The latter is about "we don't have a way to call this thing". This draft can define what crime the character has done, it's just that no punishments are deemed as adequate, for one reason or another.

Let's just make that the focus and call this draft "No Adequate Punishment".

Dec 22nd 2018 at 5:11:11 PM

Might be a stretch, but:

Dec 23rd 2018 at 1:18:47 AM

I'd argue that Language Equals Thought is very much a supertrope to this: The law lacks the very concept of, say, causing a World Wrecking Wave, and thus has no idea how to discuss, judge, or punish it. The people may understand that the Big Bad did something horrible to the world, but the Law has no idea what to do in such a situation.

As for name, calling it "No Adequate Punishment" seems good to me.

^^ Added, and I'd say it fits. They punished him for murder because they had no idea of how to deal with an And I Must Scream situation.

Dec 23rd 2018 at 2:21:18 AM

^ Do the law's letter has to be discussed in every example?

Dec 23rd 2018 at 2:56:03 AM

^ As long as it is made clear that no punishment would be adequate, no, you don't need to mention the law's wording. In that case it becomes a sort of Take Our Word For It on part of the characters: We expect them to know more about the laws and customs of their world than we do, so when they say there's no adequate punishment, we believe them without actually looking up the law of their universes.

Dec 23rd 2018 at 5:40:44 AM

^ So the implication is that, if they somehow have a "punishment" they find adequate for some nonstandard crime, they can be said as "having a specified term for said crime"? (still talking about Language Equals Thought)

Dec 23rd 2018 at 7:40:06 AM

^ If it's clear they find it adequate (your standard claim that "person X must die for their crimes", for instance), then it's not an example. If they resort to the punishment because they have nothing more fitting, then it is.

Dec 23rd 2018 at 11:45:55 AM

Oh goody, this idea has a fresh start in a new draft. Just what it needs!

Dec 23rd 2018 at 1:23:23 PM

A comedic version of this shows up in the Malcolm in the Middle episode Motivational Seminar; Reese joins a pack of dogs, and goes on a destructive spree after they make him his leader. He ends up being caught by the police in a chicken coop and brought back to his parents: Police Officer: "It's hard to know exactly what happened, ma'am. He and his friends appeared to have had themselves quite a little party. They just don't train ya to handle a scene like that. The law's a little murky in this area, but when we figure out how to charge him... I'll be back."

Dec 23rd 2018 at 2:49:28 PM

"The Hanar of Mass Effect apparently had no idea what to do when Jack Colony Dropped a space station onto their moon hard enough to make a new crater, and so they just charged her with 'Vandalism' instead."

But doesn't that sound valid? It's vandalism/property damage on a massive scale.

Dec 23rd 2018 at 3:57:35 PM

...And this one has 5 hats. Now I'm not saying this one is unworthy of launching, it's off to a much better start than the other draft at the very least... but five hats in less than two days?

Dec 23rd 2018 at 4:09:00 PM

I mean, it is the Sunday before Christmas. People probably have more time to browse the site and read up on drafts.

Dec 23rd 2018 at 5:50:52 PM

I hate retyping what I just type in the other draft so I'll be brief: Hats aren't for "I like this trope concept", guys.

Dec 24th 2018 at 2:56:08 AM

^^^^^ Added.

^^^^ Again, it's about the presentation. They had no idea with what to charge her for, so they reached wide and decided that 'Vandalism', while inadequate, was the best they had.

^^^ Don't worry, I'm not going to launch it until it's good and ready, as My draft for "New Body, Old Abilities" can attest.

Dec 24th 2018 at 8:04:05 AM

^ "While inadequate"...

Maybe you mean that whatever punishment they filed for "Vandalism" cannot be adequate for such a massive scale?

Then the wording could be fixed.

Dec 25th 2018 at 10:04:42 AM

Comic Books

  • In Astro City, Infidel's crimes include laying waste to the entire world and destroying it at least once. Unfortunately, he has been involved in so many historic events (including several in the future) that his longtime enemy Samaritan has been unable to come up with a punishment that would suit the crime without damaging the timeline. On the other hand, Infidel has been unable to find a way to kill Samaritan without causing similar damage. As a result, they've been at an impasse for years, so Infidel has agreed to go into retirement in a pocket dimension, while Samaritan agrees not to interfere with whatever he does there... for now, anyway.

Dec 27th 2018 at 12:44:56 PM

Literature example:

  • In the Star Wars Legends Jedi Academy Trillogy, Kyp Durron stands trial for destroying a solar system. Mon Mothma acknowledges that while this makes him a mass murderer on par with the Emperor, there is no adequate law in the New Republic books to punish such a crime. Not helping is that he was under the influence of the ancient sith lord Exar Kun (long story, don't ask) which muddies the question of if he was even in control of his actions. Mon Mothma declares that the only person who could make a proper judgement is the ranking Jedi master, Luke Skywalker. The later novel I, Jedi explored some of the massive problems with this decision.

Dec 28th 2018 at 12:59:52 AM

^ As a proper name, isn't Sith always capitalized?

Dec 28th 2018 at 1:42:17 AM

^^ Added ^^^ Added ^^^^ Done my best to explain why Vandalism isn't considered adequate punishment

Jan 3rd 2019 at 2:17:49 AM

The history of "crimes against humanity" started with the abolition of the slave trade during the 19th Century, but was amended to include genocide after the Ottoman Empire's systematic murder of Armenians during the First World War and Nazi Germany's own murderous campaign against the Jews during the Second World War, the scale of which was never really seen before. The latter horror actually gave rise to the very word "genocide" to refer to it.

Jan 3rd 2019 at 8:16:44 PM

Would this count?

  • Torchwood Miracle Day: Because no one can die anymore, many laws regarding life and death are rendered useless. A man strangled his wife into brain-death. Since she isn't dead and no one can die anymore, he can't be charged with murder or attempted murder. Assault is the only thing he can be charged with.

Jan 5th 2019 at 9:32:21 AM

^^ Thanks, That's a cool factoid - or you know, it would be cool if not for the subject.

^ Added, definitely a case.

Jan 5th 2019 at 11:38:01 AM

There’s an Eddie Izard comedy skit about how we don’t know how to deal with mass murderers, so they get put in house arrest.

Jan 9th 2019 at 8:33:45 AM

  • In Closely Watched Trains, a womanizing dispatcher stamps the legs and buttocks of a female co-worker using rubber stamps from the train station they work in. When the girl's outraged mother sees them, she takes her daughter to the police and courts, who reveal that they can't do anything because the dispatcher never forced or threatened her. Finally, a Nazi Party official (the film takes place in occupied Czechoslovakia), upon seeing that the stamps are written in German as well as Czech, has the dispatcher charged with "Desecration of the German Language".

Jan 7th 2019 at 11:06:42 PM

^ Added

^^ Seems quite bare bones for an example. We do have punishments for mass murderers, so what makes him make this point?

Jan 8th 2019 at 2:23:08 PM

Literature

If a clansman killed a royal python accidentally, he made sacrifices of ______ and performed an expensive burial ceremony such as was done for a great man. No punishment was prescribed for a man who killed the python knowingly. Nobody thought that such a thing could ever happen.

Real Life

  • According to Herodotus, the Persians believed that no man since the beginning of time had ever killed his own father, and that whenever this appeared to happen, it was evidence that the patricidal child was actually an impostor or changeling.

Jan 9th 2019 at 8:32:33 AM

The Eddie Izzard bit was about how the more people someone kills, the less other people can comprehend it; paraphrased, it's something like this: when someone kills one person, that's murder, when they kill 20 people, you put them in a padded cell for the rest of their life, but when someone kills 30,000 people, people are almost like "Well done! How do you find the time to kill that many people? You must get up very early in the morning..." PS did you intend to add the Closely Watched Trains example? If so, I'm not seeing it on this page.

Jan 9th 2019 at 9:15:15 PM

Live Action Television

  • On That70s Show, Kelso enrolls in the police academy and does pretty badly on a test. He and the others break into the office that night to alter the answers only to get caught. The officer who catches them tells him there's no punishment for what he's doing because it was thought there was no one stupid enough to do it.

Jan 10th 2019 at 12:15:08 AM

Contrast Failed Execution No Sentence, in which the law does has an "adequate punishment" (in this case, death), but the fact that because of plot reasons the prisoner survives leads to the law being at odds of what to do.

Jan 10th 2019 at 1:29:02 AM

What about crimes that a certain country hasn't encountered yet? I remember the Philippines having no suitable law against hacking, despite the presence of a growing IT market in the early 1990s.

Jan 10th 2019 at 4:22:42 AM

^^^^^

  • Added, thanks
^^^^
  • Sounds more like A Million Is A Statistic than this. Fairly certain we have laws for mass murderers and war criminals.
  • As for the closely watched trains? That's an oddity.. History of the page shows I added it, then deleted it again. Must've been from working on two different panes.
^^^
  • Added
^^
  • Good relation! Added!
^
  • If that's true, it's definitely an example.

Jan 10th 2019 at 5:46:18 PM

Update: (Don't know how to summarize this)

The ILOVEYOU virus, which was created in the Philippines on/after 2000, left Philippine law enforcement stumped since at the time, there was no suitable law that they can use to charge Reonel Ramones and Onel de Guzman, the creators of the virus

The options at the time was to either charge them under Republic Act 8484 (the Access Device Regulation Act) since there was evidence of the use of prepaid internet cards to access the internet or malicious mischief, a felony under the Philippines Revised Penal Code of 1932, which involves damage to property. The problem for the latter is that de Guzman told law enforcement that he may have released the worm by accident, even though the National Bureau of Investigation found his undergraduate thesis from AMA Computer College that he suggested the use of a trojan to get login access codes for people who can't access the internet.

The lack of a proper law forced the NBI to have the two released with no charges. This resulted in the passing of Republic Act No. 8792 or the E-Commerce Law to address hacking/malware problems.

Jan 10th 2019 at 6:07:09 PM

Alrighty. That post is up.

Jan 11th 2019 at 2:51:29 AM

^ Rewrote it a bit to not be as heavy a read, but added!

Jan 20th 2019 at 11:38:43 PM

^^^ Thanks for that! :)

^^ Good idea, added.

^ Thanks :)

Jan 23rd 2019 at 3:26:12 PM

  • SF Debris: This trope is discussed in some of The X Files reviews in a comedic manner in regards to what happens with those monsters that Mulder and Scully actually catch. Chuck points out that there are legal difficulties when you want to prosecute supernatural crimes, and says they just probably stick them in mental institutions (happens on the series) and use them to prank guests (Chuck's hilarious exaggeration).
    Blevins, FBI top official: Yes, but how do you prosecute a case like this?
    Chuck: [voiceover] I point you to the disastrous case of Kramer vs. Gelavan-pah-doi-doi-bloop-ooh-ueh-fwuh-whoop-whululululula which showed how difficult jusrisdiction can be in establishing these cases.

Jan 23rd 2019 at 10:22:07 AM

Bump for index suggestions

Jan 23rd 2019 at 11:06:33 AM

Discussed in the Zero Punctuation review for Super Smash Brothers Brawl, when he discusses how prominently Solid Snake and Sonic the Hedgehog were featured in advertisements but could not be played unless a player unlocked them in single player mode: "Considering, lest we forget, how prominently Snake and Sonic featured in the fucking hype, there really needs to be a law against this sort of thing. Preferably one of those maritime laws that lead to someone getting tied to a mast and flogged."

Jan 25th 2019 at 5:17:48 PM

I wonder, would this also belong on Politics Tropes?

Jan 30th 2019 at 12:31:58 AM

^ it probably could. Adding the index.

Probably also Artistic License Law in some cases. The Neuremberg trials justified their rulings on the ground that something can be deemed worth a specific punishment on the spot. "The man who committed the first murder would still be judged." or something to that effect.

Index Failure Also, perhaps? This is the failure of the law to account for the crime after all.

Feb 6th 2019 at 12:47:50 AM

Seeing no objection, I've added the indexes. I think it's ready for launch. Any objections?

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