Horrific crimes deserve fitting punishment.
Lately we’ve had no shortage of the former: a Boston bombing on a beautiful marathon day, news of a decade-long ordeal for three women held captive in a Cleveland house of horrors, a Philadelphia doctor who twisted his oath by murdering helpless infants.
When justice doesn’t seem quite enough, is vengeance the only thing that will do?
It’s an understandable response when you see the principal of the Dorchester charter school that 8-year-old Martin Richard attended give a reporter a tour of his classroom, pointing out math scores on the wall and nearly tearing up as he explains how much the youngest Boston victim’s family means to everyone there.
Or when you hear how Amanda Berry bravely called out for help or read of her mother, who never gave up on her missing daughter and died brokenhearted before she was found. Or when Kermit Gosnell is led away, never speaking a word to the desperate women he mistreated or about the babies he killed as they drew their first breaths.
Just put me in a room with the guy, I fantasized in every case. But then what? Would I commit another crime to answer theirs, one I would rationalize because each deserved far worse?
When the unimaginable happens, it provides a test of what kind of people and society we are.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother accused of the act of terrorism in Boston, had lived in the United States more than half his life. Yet many called for his rights as an American citizen to be set aside, with no limits placed on his interrogation and trial, despite any damage that might do to the notion of U.S. constitutional rights. The body of his brother, Tamerlan, finally found a resting place in Virginia, though not before protests, even from local Muslims. A woman said she organized the burial effort because “Jesus says love your enemies.”
Now there is discussion of what will happen to the Cleveland house where Ariel Castro held the women and his own 6-year-old daughter captive. Gosnell will serve a sentence of life in prison, though nothing will bring back the children or 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar, the immigrant whose life ended in Gosnell’s filthy clinic.
The quick or maybe slow deaths of the perpetrators might give a certain satisfaction, but society might be better served if police learned to treat missing-person cases with added diligence and states regularly inspected and monitored health providers, even those whose clients have no money or political pull.
If popular culture reflects life, America is in a bad place. My husband and I have noticed an increasing number of sour transgressions on TV crime procedurals, with police roughing up the bad guys while supervisors turn away because the ends justify any means. If it helps catch the one evil person in charge, anything goes.
The Fox network plans to reprise one of its most popular heroes, Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, in a new “24.” The original series became known for torture scenes — what I called “terror porn” — that always yielded vital info in the nick of time, satisfying in a nation rocked by 9/11.
Bauer was name-checked in a 2007 debate of Republican presidential hopefuls in Columbia, S.C. as the man Tom Tancredo wanted on the front line when the moderator asked about a hypothetical terrorist attack on the country. Duncan Hunter of California said at the time that he would tell the secretary of defense, “Get the information.”
The roars from the audience quieted when Sen. John McCain, the only man on the stage who had actually been tortured, said, “It’s not about the terrorists, it’s about us. … It’s about what kind of country we are.”
His words haunt each time I’m tempted to succumb to dark thoughts of revenge. It may be the simpler route, but is it justice?
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3