Crime and Punishment

What should happen to the Rutgers students who livestreamed a roommate having sex, spurring him to suicide?

This isn’t the first time the question of criminal consequences for an action like this one has come up, and doubtless it won’t be the last. But the question of when “the last” might come is the question that matters.

Jail, expulsion from Rutgers, financial liability. At least two out of those three is likely to come to pass, and probably all three should. I wish there was some way to ensure, either with the authority of the state or the civic pressure of our society, that something else followed, possibly instead of any of those consequences.

I hate it when a public official is forced to confront a scandal and says something like “I claim full responsibility” or “The buck stops here”. Much as I hate it when a celebrity faux-apologizes, a defendant reads off a lawyer-written bullet-list of regrets, anything that uses the rhetoric of apology to try to cap the well after a crime or misdeed, to “move on”.

“Claiming full responsibility” should be a lifelong sentence. Not to wear a sackcloth and ashes or a scarlet letter, not to stand abashed before a hostile crowd repeating a memorized confession under the watchful eyes of minders. It should be a sentence to work tirelessly to make it right, and never give up until it is.

The worst thing about a society that has fully monetized liability is not that people lawyer up and withhold apologies until the attorneys have worked out just how much cash the guilty party owes. The worst thing is that we’ve amputated everything else from the idea of responsibility.

What I’d like is that the two Rutgers students spend the rest of their lives talking in public about what they did, and how what they did touches on all of our lives, and maybe implicates more of us than we’d like to admit. I watched and chortled at the Star Wars Kid: I bet you did too. Didn’t we help to make a world where it’s slightly more permissible to think of humiliating someone with a viral video?

What I’d like is that the two Rutgers students have to work in everything they do for a more humane culture, for a wiser use of communicative media. I’d like them to have a special charge to live and teach the Golden Rule to their children, their friends, their neighbors, their co-workers, their communities, to any stranger who will listen and maybe even those who’d rather not.

I want this for everyone who causes this kind of pain to the world. I want state officials and policemen who prosecuted innocent men on flimsy evidence that is exposed later by genetic testing to have to spend the rest of their lives trying to make it right for the justice system, to dedicate themselves to fixing the problem. You can’t apologize for stealing someone’s life, and no payment can really compensate. Make it better, make it never happen.

I want company executives whose carelessness destroys communities, lives, whole economies, to have to make it right. Not to be thrown in jail or pay off hush money or weep on television. I want them to plug the holes, clean up the system, become the most tireless of reformers.

Of course this is not going to happen on that scale. But maybe, just maybe, we could make a small start with these two small, cruel people.

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9 Responses to Crime and Punishment

  1. Roxie says:

    Thanks for a beautiful post. The gay Rutgers alums in our household are heartbroken by this tragedy. Your proposed sentence for the two “small, cruel people” who provoked it is perfect. Why do I suspect they will be sentenced to something far less than a lifetime of trying to make amends?

  2. I agree with Roxie, Tim; this is a truly beautiful post. I can’t help but get on my soapbox though, as inappropriate as it may to the wise sentiments you’re expressing here. When you talk about “The worst thing about a society that has fully monetized liability….is that we??e amputated everything else from the idea of responsibility,” I can’t help but wonder: just what is it that allowed something as obvious as basic, moral responsibility–and the civic capability to expect such from people–to be monetized in the first place? And the answer, of course, at bottom, is extremes of pluralism and individualism in all its varieties: a complex and mobile and endlessly creative economy and society, which is obliged to reduce sense of moral obligation to penalties and fees to make for the fact that there relatively few shared locales or relationships that possess real binding moral strength any longer, is going to have a hard time avoiding the cheap employ of moral culpability (“I claim full responsibility”) in place of the real thing.

    Sorry; that’s a facile mini-rant that doesn’t belong, especially since it’s a distraction of actually learning from the position that these two little assholes reveal us as occupying. This is a great, morally serious post, Tim; thank you for writing it.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think it’s possible that late 20th Century mobility and individuality make it harder and harder to be Atticus Finch, though I’d note that being Atticus Finch or Thomas Stockmann is often quintessentially about making the individual choice to pursue a moral campaign against the backdrop of community unwillingness to shoulder that burden. Past communitarian sovial worlds don’t seem to me to have been much better either at spurring people to accept moral responsibility for the work left undone or at confessing responsibility for harm done. But maybe better at standardizing the meaning of a claim of responsibility?

    A lot of 20th Century fiction concerns the contrast between private, interior knowledge of wrongdoing and public responsibility for same, and what happens when those streams cross. Where those fictions are close to the point you make, Russell, is where they envision that private remorse and guilt, when made public, is a traumatic tragedy for the individual in question, exploding the tenuous bargains and evasions that have made psychological life possible for that person–but often, perversely, that explosion is what makes it possible for that individual to life a new life in community. (Say, the film Tender Mercies? or as long as I’m on a Duvall kick, The Apostle? There’s a lot of examples, really.) Hard as those stories tend to be, they’re often hopeful, and they do often involve the re-entry into a single cohesive community rather than a pluralistic, individualistic society.

    The dystopic strain of the same story raises the possibility that contemporary individuality is moving or has moved towards having no interior at all: Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors or Ellis’ American Psycho. That’s the reductive scenario you’re describing.

    However, I think reduction of moral obligation isn’t the same as diversification or pluralism of moral obligation. In those terms, the real issue isn’t that we don’t have moral obligation, but that we don’t have the faintest idea how to go about comparing the internal logics of moral responsibility in two different subcultural worlds.

  4. Tim, thanks for the insightful response. Perhaps language–the coherence of it, the connections it allows people to articulate, both publicly and to themselves–really is at the heart of it of why a communitarian response is the one which comes to my mind here. Communities (with their “intimate tyrannies” as you once described them) have their virtues and their vices, but one thing they do very well (either intentionally or simply through habituation) is “standardize the meaning of a claim to responsibility.” Since there will only be a limited number of ways in which obligation and culpability can be sensibly expressed (because there will only be so many roles and spaces within which fault and responsibility can be articulated), the accusation of obligation will convey a widely recognized meaning, one not so easily sublimated into a different (monetary) language.

    You’re right that it’s not that mobility and complexity has necessarily transformed us all into atomized, irresponsible individuals; there will always be that (maybe more than before, but that’s arguable), just as there will always be felt moral obligation arising out of family expectations, religious teaching, or just plain ornery consciousness. But to take the “internal logic” of that sense of responsibility, and turn it into something that can be more broadly recognized, articulated, and acted upon (up to and including the sense of constructing penalties and expectations informed by it, whether we call it “shame” or whatever)…that requires a language, and a language community capable of supporting such.

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “two different subcultural worlds,” though. If the point of your post is the hope that we can, sometimes anyway, make “taking responsibility” really mean something, in a lifelong way, then aren’t you talking about moving a feeling of responsibility from one, mostly private world, to the broader public one? I don’t think we, the American reading public who are horrified at what these unthinking creeps did, necessarily constitute a “subculture.”

  5. ben wolfson says:

    A facile response to a facile rant: was it “extremes of pluralism and individualism in all its varieties” that gave us the weregild?

    (Conceiving of crimes as crimes against the state surely also plays a role and likely paves the way for more than succeeds on extremes of pluralism.)

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I dunno, Russell, maybe we are a subculture. That at least remains to be seen. I’m watching with some interest whether or not the online branch of the cultural right is willing to throw the Assistant Attorney General of Michigan to the wolves or not as an obvious case of going beyond the pale of legitimate activism.

  7. Good grief that guy is creepy (and, as probably most people also think, likely deeply in denial). Anyway, fair question. And thanks for the responses.

  8. joe o says:

    I hate it when a public official is forced to confront a scandal and says something like “I claim full responsibility” or “The buck stops here”. Much as I hate it when a celebrity faux-apologizes, a defendant reads off a lawyer-written bullet-list of regrets, anything that uses the rhetoric of apology to try to cap the well after a crime or misdeed, to “move on”.

    The faux-apology isn’t optional for the celebrities though. Micheal Vick couldn’t have said “I will go to jail but I enjoy dog fights and don’t think cruelty to animals is that big of a deal”. And do we really want Vick to be the public figure dedicated to reducing animal cruelty? Because he enjoys dog fights and doesn’t think cruelty to animals is that big of a deal.

  9. monkey02245 says:

    Thanks, Tim, for this important post. My comment is a bit off of the topic of the ‘punishment’ aspect of the ‘crime,’ but your post spurred my otherwise ambiguous and uncomfortable response to the ‘crime’ in a more coherent direction. What truly disturbs me about the Rutgers incident — or my own reaction to the event — is that I find myself feeling almost incomprehensibly in identification with the perpetrators of the ‘crime.’ I’ve never done something as quite as obvious in its invasion of privacy as these two ‘small, cruel people’ did, but I think that I’m basically implicated in their crime (in the widest sense) through my general disregard for the realm of the private in much of the way I comport myself in the world — without much regard for the distinction between public/private at all, these days. In other words, even as a gay guy, with some semblance of intelligence about and care for the world and its inhabitants, I can imagine doing something of a similar ilk — and without any of the motivations of homophobia or cruelty that have been suggested as motives for the perpetrators of the ‘crime.’ It also strikes me that this ‘crime’ — for which the two ‘small, cruel people’ will, if they are human enough, be psychically guilty for for the rest of their lives — could have been retroactively marked as playful and amusing, even (in an obnoxious, frat-like way) if the student hadn’t committed suicide. I imagine this is my discomfort with the event — the understanding of it as a ‘crime’ with a necessary ‘punishment’ — it frightens me, or reminds me, that we are (or at least, I am) prone to the same kind of mistakes, mishaps, misjudgments — and am in fact implicated in them all of the time in my facebook posts, among other de-privatizing modes of cultural expression that implicate others in my own narratives about myself — that the two ‘small, cruel people’ performed with tragic consequences. I guess my point is that my discomfort with my own reaction to the ‘crime’ is that the ‘crime’ seems more human — more ordinary, more understandable, even — than most ‘crimes,’ and I feel both outrage and pity, simultaneously, in the actions of the two perpetrators. I’m not interested in condoning their behavior — or condemning the suicidal action that resulted — rather, I’m trying to understand my coincident anger and empathy at what cannot be better described as the smallness and cruelty of the two people involved in the crime. It reminds me that we are all — or, I’ll qualify again, at least I am — caught in a system, or conditions for the enactment of, small and cruel ‘crimes’ for which I may not intend. The whole event makes me anxious as a potential perpetrator in a world of a consistently closing gap between public and private in which all cultural expression is considered endless play.

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