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Published on Tuesday, September 5, 2000 in the Boston Globe
America's Crude Approach To Crime And Punishment
by James Carroll
What will it mean for America if Bill Clinton is charged as a criminal? The question emerges from reports that independent counsel Robert W. Ray is reiterating the perjury and misconduct case against the president before a new grand jury, issues tied to the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky matters. To some, an indictment of the president, before or after he leaves office, would be a welcome reassertion of the principle that no one is above the law. To others, such an event would be a sordid exercise in partisan politics, a sign more of the pathology of Clinton's enemies than of the virtue of justice. I fall into this latter group.

But the question has larger implications than the old debates between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, or between libertarians and puritans, for that matter. In the unfolding presidential campaign, much attention is being paid to the rhetoric of values and religion, but the test of a society's spiritual health is a matter not of the gods invoked but of the way it responds to certain fundamental human problems. Most obviously, how a nation deals with war and peace provides a far more reliable measure of its moral character than how it worships.

For example, religious life in Germany remained vital throughout the Nazi period, and the overt spiritual commitments of the population proved to be remarkably irrelevant to its capacity for moral discernment. According to the scholar William Sheridan Allen, by 1940, seven years after Hitler came to power and after he had launched his brutal war, 95 percent of the German population was still affiliated with a church. From all reports, instead of that affiliation prompting dissent from the quite evident Nazi program, it reinforced broad German cooperation with evil.

As revealing as attitudes toward war and peace are, so are social responses to crime and punishment. That the two phrases are enshrined in the titles of great Russian novels is a clue to their significance as signals of communal character. In fact the question of judicial retribution goes even deeper than that of military ethics, since even before confronting enemies abroad, society must organize itself around norms and their observance. Are those who violate such norms automatically dealt with as enemies within? Or can we distinguish among kinds of violation, and can we construct a judicial system on the basic fact of life that no member of society perfectly realizes its ideal? How do we respond to one another when we make mistakes, or when we fail to keep promises, or when we abuse the trust we've been given? When offenses are committed, how do we balance the human need for revenge against the social benefit of rehabilitation? And how do we know when an offender has been punished enough?

These questions seem so fundamental that it is hard to believe an advanced democracy like ours regularly shows itself incapable of answering them. The solid American commitment to capital punishment, which subliminally manifests a quasi-religious faith in human sacrifice, is one indicator that something is askew in our moral reasoning about crime and punishment. Another is the burgeoning prison industry: A few days ago the Justice Department reported that last year, 1,284,894 people were incarcerated in this country.

The figure, presumably, is higher today. An even greater number of children under 18 has a parent in prison. No country in the world approaches such rates of social breakdown. And as is well known, many of the incarcerated have been consigned to the hyper-violent culture of prison for crimes that involved no violence. Indeed, many violations of social norms are simplistically defined as crimes when in fact they could be more humanely and practically dealt with as problems of mental health, consequences of addiction, or even failures to learn.

In most aspects of American culture, we have developed tremendously nuanced responses to economic, organizational, and political challenges, but when it comes to crime and punishment, we are content to respond with the crude, often discredited methods of the past. Our prisons are the social and moral equivalents of the poor houses and debtors' jails to which the destitute were once routinely condemned. Someday the hyper-prisons that salt the American landscape will offend moral sensibility the way the grotesque insane asylums and cruel orphanages of the past do today.

The unsubtle American way of dealing with crime and punishment is to say, If you cross us, we will smash you. And that is where Bill Clinton's fate comes in. If the legal system deems that this most profoundly disgraced man has not been punished enough; if his fully admitted and acknowledged abuse of the public trust is now criminalized, with an indictment and trial; if the media rituals of humiliation are now to be performed over his head again - it will, alas, only be business as usual in this country.

Thousands upon thousands of men and women whose names we do not know have already been shown as little mercy for their mistakes. Their cases have been adjudicated with as little concern for the broader social welfare. The presidential campaign reveals an America profoundly self-satisfied with its religion, values, morality, virtue - but this same America blithely maintains an approach to human fallibility and, yes, criminal behavior that knows nothing of mercy, wisdom, forgiveness or the time to say, Enough!

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company


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