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Morality play

January 12, 2013

I’ve been reading about an arrest made in the small town we lived in until a few months ago. A man who lived two doors down from AJ’s school was arrested for repeatedly assaulting at least five children, ages 4-14, in his house over a period of many months. It’s a horrible story and a little too close to home. A friend of mine posted about this on VisageTome — she lives a few doors away from the house herself and has three kids between 7 and 11. If I were in her shoes, I would be freaking out. Her point in posting the story was to make sure other parents in the area knew about it — a worthy goal, as they are trying to make sure other children had not been affected. Her comment referring to him as a pervert grated with me, just as any name-calling does, but given her proximity, also seemed warranted. But I’m finding the responding comments alarming. There are many and they are all vitriolic. The last was the most disturbing to me, “I hope he gets beaten every day in prison,” it said “or worse.” It’s become a virtual lynch mob.

Now I hope this guy is seriously punished. We need him to not do this again. He needs to understand the seriousness of his crime. And we need to make sure this never, ever happens again. But I find the calls for further violence chilling, even if it is only posturing. And they’re not uncommon. Most of us probably saw similar responses to the shootings in Newtown or Colorado. Maybe this seems naive or lefty or whatever adjective you want to throw at me, but who in their right mind would do any of these things? Clearly all of these people have serious problems. But the collective first response is to squash them, not help them. It’s short sighted. Helping them is helping us too. Squashing them doesn’t fix anything. Vengeance isn’t progress.

I keep wondering if I would feel differently if it were my own kid or if this guy lived in my building, but I don’t think so. I would fight like hell to get the guy behind bars, to see him punished for his crime. I might wish some bad things would happen, but I can’t imagine putting them down on paper, virtual or otherwise. I can’t imagine completely losing compassion. I can’t imagine really wishing the violence would happen. But I’ll give you that a situation like that is very hard to imagine with any kind of accuracy, and I sure hope it stays that way.

Part of the problem with the whole eye-for-an-eye approach is that I don’t know where you draw the line. Is shoplifting a crime that demands vigilante justice? Well, no. Of course not. What about burglary? Armed robbery? A man was robbed and beaten to death less than a mile from my apartment earlier this week. What about that? Do we beat that perp too? Murderer? Child molesters? Inflicters of genocide? Where do you draw the line? The truth is, you can’t.

Nothing makes me realize I’m a cock-eyed optimist like a discussion about the death penalty. My response isn’t logical. It comes from the gut. I think it’s wronger than wrong and I don’t care what the crime is. It’s not because I think justice is not as blind as she thinks she is — although that’s certainly true. It’s because, well, who am I to decide if someone lives or dies? Why would I get that kind of decision? Don’t get me wrong, there are times for violence. If I had a gun in my pocket and someone were aiming at my kid, I’m pretty sure I’d shoot (there’s no way I’d ever have a gun in my pocket, though) and I wouldn’t be looking to injure. But why is that situation different? Self-protections seems more morally justifiable to me than revenge. Intellectually, I’m not sure if it makes any sense that I’d be more comfortable shooting to kill if someone were attacking me than sitting on a jury that votes for the death penalty in a murder case.

So I’m curious, gentle and not-so-gentle readers: What do you think? Is there ever a case where taking the law into your own hands is fine? Does this mean our laws aren’t working? Where do you draw the lines between the punishment and the crime? And how do you respond to discussions of escalating violence? Should I consider that they are just venting — I don’t think anyone would or could actually take action? Should I respond? Or should I just tune out?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2013 10:49 am

    There is nothing inconsistent about being willing to kill in self-defense but being opposed to killing as a punishment. I’ve held those two beliefs side by side for as long as I can remember. The former stops the crime; the latter doesn’t undo it. I think there’s a moral judgment, too, that of the people involved, if one is going to die it should be the aggressor, not the putative victim.

    On taking the law into your own hands, as any serious comic book reader knows, it’s justified **when** the law isn’t working (see, e.g., Gotham City before Batman).

    As for discussions on VisageTome (love that, but the way), I’d tune out. The comments aren’t coming from a rational place, and the commenters will not respond to a rational argument.

  2. January 12, 2013 1:06 pm

    Mr. Unfocused is right on track. Here’s what I would add: we have a criminal justice system which is designed to decide who requires punishment and mete it out. It may be broken in a variety of ways, but it is far less broken than random vigilante-ism, which (as you point out) is grossly inconsistent not only from crime to crime, but from reaction to reaction. Mobs never think rationally and frequently escalate their actions to the unthinkable (one of the many reasons I really don’t like crowds, which can turn into mobs all too easily).

    Finally, by treating broken human beings as less than human, we break ourselves. The fear and rage that we feel when things like this happen is powerful, but abandoning ourselves to it is a failure to be not only humane but human.

  3. January 12, 2013 8:31 pm

    I agree with all of this — clearly only a seriously damaged or ill person commits crimes like the Newtown shootings. With pedophiles, it may just be a case of being wired that way, and I don’t know what we do about that, but mob justice probably isn;t the answer. I don’t know — comments in general seem to bring out the worst in people. (Well, not comments here!)

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