Tuesday, August 28, 2012


If you enjoy self-righteous pronouncements and amateur indictments, the sfgate.com comments section is for you.  The San Francisco Chronicle’s online team has clearly focused on maintaining the web traffic of its most vigorous group - the armchair adjudicators who level their verdicts on everything from Norwegian mass murderers to Tom Cruise’s child support payments.  In fact, the comments section on the web site has been revamped in such a way that people can instantaneously comment on articles, rate each other’s comments, and watch as the dynamic list ranks each according to popularity.  It’s addictive.

Reading the latest comments about Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal has been enlightening.  At 367 comments and climbing, commenters alternately laud and malign Armstrong, commending him as a “cancer survivor whose physiology itself explains his success” or assailing him as a “liar and a cheater who no one’s kids should look up to.”  But, friend or foe, everyone has a criticism - either of the anti-doping agencies for witch hunting, the cyclists for looking for ways to gain advantage, and even the other sfgate commenters for caring at all.  Still, no one is calling for blood.  You have to click over to the shooting-related articles for those.

The things wished upon the shooters of the Aurora movie theater, Wisconsin Sikh temple, and Norway summer camp incidents are full of serious rage and bloodthirst.  Not that I can blame much of anyone for feeling overwhelming anger at these gunmen - they committed atrocious crimes and stole many innocent lives.  But though I usually love clicking my thumbs up/thumbs down ratings on sfgate comments, these ones leave me stuck.  I can’t in good conscience wish state executions or prison rape on these guys.  Mostly because I don’t know what good it would do, and honestly don’t believe it would fix anything at all.

I’ve written about rage before - about those moments of encountering a caregiver being mean to a child or a driver racing dangerously past me on the freeway - when for a moment I’m overwhelmed by anger and hatred and a thirst for vengeance.  But those rage-filled moments are just that, moments.  They are not my way of life.  Particularly when I was teaching at an inner-city school and encountering cruel parents or spineless administrators, believe me, I could delight in some revenge fantasies that involved public embarrassment or humiliating newspaper editorials.  But I hated dwelling on those thoughts for too long - they ate away at me and left me feeling empty and depressed.  And now, when I read through comments that wish evil upon these recent murderers in the news, yes, I empathize, but I think that those people also need to take a step back and examine their feelings and their quests for retribution and punishment.  I think we all do.

What does it say about you if you’re angered to distraction about the number of years in a Norwegian murderer’s prison sentence?  Especially if the country as a whole and an overwhelming number of its citizens, including parents of victims, continue to promote a rehabilitation-based system that would give this man a chance at some kind of recovery, whether through therapy in lifelong incarceration or even the chance of release.  What does it say if you need to see the Aurora shooter executed versus imprisoned for life?  What does it mean for us to have laws that require minimum sentences for drug users or the ability to try young teenagers as adults?  I grapple with these questions because while I want to feel protected from dangerous criminals, I don’t feel like our current legal system actually does that very well, and I don’t want that feeling of false safety to the exclusion of giving people chances to change, recover, and rejoin society, especially since so many of the offenders are there because they weren’t given a solid chance at life in the first place.

It’s hard not to look at things through the lens of parenthood when you’re with a toddler full time.  So many of the workings of the adult world seem so beautifully distilled and applicable to how we treat young children.  I see the positive impact of my nurturing and patient approaches to James’ limit-testing, and witness the futility of my misguided attempts to simply “punish” offenses.  A two year old is certainly a different animal than an adult felon, but not entirely.  Why in adulthood do we stop taking this approach with each other - a nurturing, learning-centered one?  Yes, it is extreme to say that we can nurture and help a proudly self-professed mass murderer, but even at this extreme, would it hurt to try?  Sometimes in the heat of the moment it can seem absurd to give James back his food after he’s thrown some on the floor for the hundredth time, yet I do it, because even though it would be entirely “fair” to take it away, I want to give him those hundred chances to succeed and grow.  Not that I think the Norway killer deserves a lot of chances or has demonstrated much room for growth, but I really do like to believe that anything is possible over the span of two decades, however unlikely.

Speaking of unlikely occurrences, I’ve been taking an interest in Jesus lately.  People keep talking to me about him, that is, people I like and respect and who are not randomly accosting me in the street.  I’ve never trusted this Jesus guy because he has inspired a whole lot of fighting and anger and apparently homophobia.  But it turns out that the “actual” Jesus just preached a lot of good stuff, and most of it was based on love.  And I’ve come to imagine and embrace the idea of this person who walks around without rage or self-righteousness, but just deep empathy and understanding and love.  I could say the same things about what I know about MLK Jr. or Gandhi, but I’ve enjoyed dwelling on the notion of an other-worldly being who has no other human flaws to get in the way of this pure kind of love and forgiveness - and I also like the image of his flowy robes and hippie hair and peaceful, embracing demeanor.  

I would imagine Jesus to be the type of guy who would do exactly what the Norwegians have - give their convicted felon a small but humane place where he can live with no risk to others, give him some help and therapy and care, and give him many years to see if there is any hope for him.  And if there isn’t, I know that Jesus wouldn’t give him a hug and let him walk free when his 21 years are up . . . in fact I’m confident that Jesus would be a fan of the let’s-check-in-every-half-decade to see what happens from there.  But I just don’t see Jesus on sfgate.com, writing a let-him-fry comment and thumbs-upping all of the other calls for blood.  Although if Jesus were around I also don’t see that trashy website surviving for so damn long.  

As humans or Americans or who knows what, we seem to be primed for stories and experiences where things work out fairly.  We read about Cinderella and delight when her evil stepmother gets stuck working a miserable job in the palace kitchen (or, in the original version, where the stepsisters get blinded by pigeons).  We like to see justice served, and fairness prevailing.  But fairness is so complicated - as much as we want to keep things simple, there are always background stories and contexts that confound our ability to hold someone 100% responsible for a faulty action.  There are almost always explanations, if not excuses.  I don’t think we need to abandon our quest for fairness, or start forgiving serious criminals and setting them free.  I would never forgive the Norwegian killer for what he’s done, nor will I ever think it’s fair that he gets to live when so many died at his hands.  But neither of those things interfere with my ultimate feelings on justice.  I simply believe that we should value rehabilitation and love over punishment and hatred, even at the cost of what would be “fair.”  

In uncharacteristic fashion, I don’t think that anyone else should necessarily agree.  I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to think that 21 years is too few.  I just like to imagine how this type of justice would impact American culture, and what life here would be like with fewer prisoners and a love-thy-neighbor spirit.  I think Jesus would dig it.