This is going to be a hard post to write.
You know when you start something, or even before you start something and you’re saying to yourself “Oh boy, this is going to hurt”? Like that.
It’s a sad comment on the state of the world that we are becoming used to mass shootings. The Aurora shooter captured our attention only by doing something different. “A movie theater? That’s new. That’s original.” Sometimes I feel like I’m in a pitch meeting at Fox.
But it’s not really Aurora that makes this hard.
There was another news story this week. There were many others, but one caught my attention. A teenage girl, who had been ordered as part of a plea agreement not to name two boys who assaulted her when she was passed out drunk, nevertheless posted both their names on Twitter. The judge found her in contempt and charged her. She could get 180 days and/or a heavy fine. Her attackers have not yet been sentenced, though they will be.
Let me make this clear. She’s the victim. They are the perpetrators. That is not in question. I don’t know the full details of the attack, but I believe her story. Why wouldn’t I? It’s not like this kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time. Lately the blogosphere has been alight with female bloggers, many of them YA writers or reviewers, admitting that they are survivors of rape or sexual abuse. These posts were hard to write too I imagine. They are hard to read.
Yeah, okay, I’m a survivor too. I don’t want to go into that. This post is about something else.
I fell into reading about the case of the teenage girl, and the comments on what she’d done. She got nearly universal support. People wanted to contribute to her defense fund, to pay her fine, celebrate her bravery. She’s a hero. The sentiment can be summed up thus: “They ruined her life so she should ruin theirs.”
I have a couple of things to say about that. The first thing this: please stop telling young women that getting raped ruins their lives. If we keep saying this they will believe it. Look at it this way, statistics tell us that one in four women will be raped or sexually assaulted. Look around you. One in four of them, women that you see at school, at work, at church, at the playground with the kids, in the supermarket, at the library, in restaurants, at the doctor’s office, at the gym, in the senate or in congress, on TV or in movies, or music, famous women or the woman next door , one out of four has been raped. Do these women look like their lives are ruined?
I think sometimes there is a logical fallacy associated with this, something along the lines of all wolves are dogs, a beagle is a dog, therefore a beagle is a wolf. While it is true that the overwhelming majority of women with “ruined” lives (homeless, drug addicted, incarcerated etc.) have been raped it does not follow that rape ruins all rape survivors, or even that it was rape that ruined the lives of the women who are “ruined”.
The idea rape “ruins” women is a holdover from a time we are well shot of, a time when women were expected to remain virgins to “marry well” and be successful wives and ladies, nothing more. Of course sexual assault has continuing effects throughout a woman’s life (or a man’s), but please stop using this rhetoric: “they ruined her life”. This is harmful to young women. It has to stop.
Here’s the second thing I have to say and this is where it gets hard. I don’t believe this young woman’s life is ruined. She has stuff she needs to overcome, things she needs to heal surely. I can’t know the exact journey she has ahead; every person is different in how they deal with this. I do know this though: she will have the support of a strong and determined sisterhood of survivors and feminists, and the support of the community at large. Generally speaking, our society no longer stigmatizes rape victims. No jobs or fields of study are closed to her. Few men and no women would be unsympathetic to her if she wants one as a romantic partner. If she wants to, she can marry and have children, adopt, become a foster parent, a girl guide leader or a minister of religion (not a Catholic priest of course; don’t get me started on that).
Those boys did not ruin her life; but I’m pretty sure they very nearly ruined their own.
Eventually in the comments of the one news story I read, a commenter did what I so hoped they wouldn’t and posted the boys’ names. I couldn’t help myself. I Googled them. Their names were unusual enough that Googled together I was sure I would find them. I thought I might find some other blogs or comments on the case, on the attack, on the victim’s actions. I didn’t. I found them both on the page of a champion junior sports team. Each player had a bio and a photo. Both boys were handsome, healthy looking young men. One of them specified in his bio that he wants to be a doctor.
This stupid boy has one thing going for him. In his state, since he is a juvenile he will not be required to register as a sex offender. He has pled to a felony sex offence, but his record, like most juvenile records will likely be expunged when he turns twenty-one. He is not required to register. He dodged a bullet that eviscerates boys just like him every day in other states of the USA and in other countries where juveniles ARE required to register, sometimes for life. He won’t be going to medical school with his age mates, that is almost certain, but after he turns twenty-one he has a chance. Should we give him this chance? Or should we “ruin his life”? Examine your feelings on this. What if he is destined to be the doctor that saves your life, or the life of your child?
“But,” you protest, “what he did was unforgivable.” We hear this word a lot in the media: unforgivable.
The young woman was wronged. She wanted vengeance and, feeling that the courts hadn’t meted it out for her, sought it herself. She was celebrated for this, for publically and permanently labeling her attackers. The media praised her strength and bravery. She took matters into her own hands, she made them hurt, she made them pay. This is viewed as heroic. What I’d like to know is how far would we let her go? Would we congratulate her if she killed her attackers? What if she arranged to have their mothers or sisters raped? Or their daughters? At what point do the vengeful sentiments we accept and celebrate become another unforgivable act?
Because here is something I’m almost sure of. The Aurora shooter had vengeance in his heart.
Yeah. Maybe I’ll come back to that.
What is the purpose of criminal justice? There was a time, and there are still places in the world where rapists were and are dealt with by the family of the victim. This was and is called “retribution”. Why do we have so many words for this in English anyway? “Revenge”, “retribution”, “vengeance”, “vindication”, “vendetta”, “retaliation”. Is this like the Inuit and their eleven words for snow? Does revenge form such an important part of our lives, our understanding of the world?
Is American criminal justice revenge? Yes, I believe it is, and increasingly so. Thousands of children are tried and convicted as adults every year in the USA. They are sentenced to long terms in adult jails where everyone knows they will be beaten, raped or even killed. Some lawmakers and pundits seem to delight in this idea, because these children, for “what they did” deserve it. In the United States today, over 2,500 individuals are behind bars for life without the possibility of parole for crimes that they committed as juveniles. These kids are forced to finish high school (its own kind of torture) but many are denied any further education or treatment. “Why bother?” is the justification. “They’re never getting out. Why rehabilitate them?”
In what way is this not revenge, cold and brutal?
Adult offenders are regularly given spitefully long sentences for relatively minor crimes, and of course, some men are executed. No, let’s call it what it is. Some men are killed in retribution for what they’ve done, sometimes despite the fact that their victims’ families have spoken up against it, despite the fact that they have become exemplary prisoners, role models, staunchly anti-gang and anti-violence and/or deeply religious.
This is the moment I’d like to remind you that almost 100% of criminal offenders, especially violent or sexual offenders have been victimized one way or another themselves, usually as children.
The boys in the story above may not have been victims of physical or sexual abuse but I think there is a fairly good chance they were raised by passive mothers and aggressive fathers. I’m pretty sure this male aggressiveness was reinforced by playing competitive contact sports, and yes, by violent video games, music and movies. I’m pretty sure the adults around them discussed sex as a forbidden and wicked wonderland, while simultaneously tolerating, or even encouraging the competing and mixed messages about sex from the media, older kids, their peers, teasing girls and goading boys. They were discouraged from showing any emotions apart from bravado, lust and greed, but those three emotions were celebrated. I’m pretty sure they were drunk too. Who knows where they got the booze.
It takes a village to fuck up on this epic scale. It really does. But offenders often end up facing the music alone. That’s the way it goes. We create them together then we punish them alone. The punishment is intended to ensure they don’t do it again. In many cases it doesn’t work (though juvenile sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rate of almost any offenders). In some cases, such as life without parole or death penalty it certainly does work. They never offend (on the outside anyway) again. Vengeance is served.
But what does this vengeance do to us?
Let me come back to my experience. I’m not giving details. It is neither the best nor the worst of stories; let’s leave it at that. It happened. Do I want revenge?
No. No. A million times no.
My life was not ruined. I have a wonderful life.
I don’t want revenge. I forgive.
When people get shot in the USA, if it is not an accident, it is almost always motivated by revenge. Gang shootings are revenge. Premeditated murder is revenge. Massacres, like Aurora and Columbine are revenge. Even innocent shop keepers who are killed during bungled robberies are the victims of revenge. Those thieves steal and shoot because their lives have been one abuse after another and someone needs to pay. Even the hapless burglar who gets shot in the back, running off with someone’s DVD player dies because of revenge. Are those “stand-your-grounders” shooting, killing for a $39 DVD player? Of course not. They shoot because they are angry and scared. They have been harmed and they want revenge.
Violence begets violence, they say. No. It doesn’t. Vengeance begets violence. The difference between the abused kid who ended up killing a convenience store clerk and the abused kid who became, oh let’s say Oprah Winfrey, is forgiveness. Successful people forgive the world for the abuses they suffer. Look at Gandhi. Look at Nelson Mandela. Look at Aung San Suu Kyi. Look at the countless successful Holocaust survivors, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, exiles from Stalin or Mao, Saddam Hussein or Pinochet. They succeed because they forgive. A vengeful heart is a broken heart that can never heal. A vengeful heart percolates violence like a pot on a stove. And it boils over. And someone gets burnt.
ALL the mass shooters in the world, insane or not, were acting on vengeful thoughts.
Suicide is an act of revenge.
Jesus tells us (I know, funny right? I’m quoting Jesus) much about forgiveness, particularly that we must forgive not “Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22) In fact forgiveness is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. This is why I find the vindictiveness of not just the American justice system but the American people (one of the most Christianized nations on earth) so perplexing. Seven times seventy is 490. Are criminals given 490 chances to be rehabilitated in America? No. They are lucky to get one chance. Almost no one gets more than three.
Some juvenile sex offenders don’t even get the one chance. They make one appalling mistake and they pay with their lives. This is what that young woman wanted. I don’t fault her for wanting it. She was hurting, angry, confused and felt betrayed not just by the justice system but by two boys she thought she could trust. She should have been able to trust them. She did the right thing by reporting the attack. It’s possible the boys didn’t really think they had done anything wrong. It’s possible they might have done it again. Hopefully being arrested and charged will show them the error of their thinking. Hopefully their own remorse will serve to rehabilitate them and help them grow into moral men. Hopefully they will get the treatment they need in remand or in the community.
Do they need to be punished? If punishing them will deter them from re-offending, then yes, I guess so. Except we know that punishment doesn’t work like that. Incarceration and registration only ensures that men become outcasts and deviants. Outcasts and deviants have no disincentives to re-offending. Is this a disincentive to other young men who might be inclined to offend this way? I really doubt it.
Will we feel better if the Aurora shooter gets the death penalty? Will that bring his victims back? Will it lessen the sorrow of their loved ones?
No. It will make a murderer out of a public servant though.
An eye for an eye? Or seventy time seven? It’s time to choose.