I do not often pay headline hogging trials and criminal cases much mind. The case of Jerry Sandusky was something of an exception to that rule for me. I was fascinated seeing yet another influential and beloved man of authority, and the community he represented, drawn into the maw of sexual torture and narcissism. Sandusky victimized perhaps dozens of young men and boys, and his subordinates and employers did nothing to stop him, even when they had eye witness testimony to back up the whispered accusations and suspicions. This does not surprise me: powerful organizations, like the Catholic Church, Baptist preachers, and in this case Penn State University will always cover up the evil actions of their members in order to maintain what power they have. These institutions are the first to try and whitewash the actions of their acolytes and associates with pleas to “remember the good that this man has done”. The fact remains, though, that there is no weighted scale of ethical value. If Martin Luther King or Jimmy Carter had abused a child I would not for an instant consider the good they had done as a mitigating factor in deciding their punishment. Good deeds or thoughts are not a license to do evil. We must be judged by our actions towards every man, woman, and child, not just our general actions towards the rest of humanity. A human is only as kind or as evil as he as treated the last human being she interacted with. We can only go by the standard because we live in a world where our moral and ethical acts and thoughts are not recorded in some sort of cosmic registry. There is not last accounting. There is only an immediate and just reckoning at best, and a log slog towards justice at worst.
Jerry Sandusky is no more an intrinsically evil man then I am. He was made evil in the eyes of human morality and human dignity by his actions against the individuals in his care. There is nothing to redeem in him, just as there is equally nothing that can erase the good that he has done for others. Morality is not a simple thing. One is not colored blood red by his actions, he is not permanently marked by some altruistic force of law. If he had not been caught and brought to justice Sandusky would have continued to do good and evil, but the evil he did and would have continued to commit cannot be justified by any good he would have done. Society is a line in the sand. Stray over the line and there is no way to completely come back over. There is atonement in word and deed, but there is no undoing what has been done. That is not to say that one who does evil cannot do any good. Oh what a much simpler world it would be if that were the case.
But, there are some acts that must forever separate a human from the bosom of full civilization and society. These acts vary from society to society but there are a few acts that are equally condemned by all contemporary civilizations: malice or revenge or madness driven murder, knowingly aiding and abetting the same, violent rape and the sexual abuse of a child. The last is, rightfully or not, most often considered the most grave of all insults against human dignity. This may have to do with our projection of innocence, sexual, moral and intellectual, onto children, and our common memory of what it felt like to be a child. Everyone was once a child, and thus everyone could have once been the most pitiful of victims. Plato, writing on sacrilege and treason (the most abominable crimes in his day and location) in his Laws calls upon the man who does evil to depart from the evils committed, morally, and physically if need be. If moving beyond the acts committed and learning to forgive oneself, or at least to reflect upon ones evil acts, is enough to justify a continuation of existence then that is “well and good”.
These words must be understood within as the thoughts and opinions of a man who upheld the good of the community, indeed the society, above that of the individual and his concerns. Harm wrought upon society by the depraved acts of the individual are acts that cannot be tolerated. Even today, in our liberal societies with their liberal ideas of individualism and liberty, a wall of common concern is erected against those who most grossly offend the public trust. Some evil deeds forever alienate the individual from the community. The predatory abuse of children is one of those deeds, along with the continual abuse of multiple children under his care as an authority figure, and as we learned to our horror, as a father. Such violations of human trust and dignity cannot be forgiven. He can no longer function as a member of civilized society, first and foremost because of his actions and secondly because his peers in society will not stand for it at all. People are revolted by abuses of this sort, and that revulsion often takes the form of violence and other irrational actions taken in retaliation, done extra-judicially, that undermine the foundations of law and order.
Prison is the obvious option for a man such as this. But there is another ethical complication to this seeming catch all response. It is a well-known fact rising to a cultural meme and pop-culture trope that sexual offenders imprisoned in general population do not often live out their natural lives. Many do not survive the first week. Now some may see this as some sort of divine or karmic justice, and it very well may be, but that is not for the law authorities and the justice they uphold to decide. All humans are worthy of at least basic dignity, even if they have outraged the dignity of others. They have the right to live in safety and relative comfort. Men as varied as Mumia Abu Jamal and Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, not to mention thousands of former prisoners themselves, have testified to the brutality and inhumanity of prison conditions in the Western world in general and the USA in particular.
Prisons have become merely holding pens for human beings who are viewed as the animal remains of who they were before their crimes. Common thieves are housed with violent robbers, rapists, murderers, and sexual predators, and all are subject to the arbitrary and fantastically violent “justice” of gangs and brotherhoods that make our festering correctional system their home. There is only ever an illusion of control, a managing of the violent chaos inherent to a system where, according Stanley Williams (author, prisoner, murderer and founder of the street gang The Crips), “violence is like an active volcano — it can erupt at any time. Violence can come from someone you hardly know, or even from someone who is very close to you. You can have a friend today, and tomorrow he can become your No. 1 enemy.” Is this justice? Is this what a democracy truly represents?
Williams is an example of a man who changed himself and his own personal ethics in spite of the hell he was condemned to. He authored many books on gang violence and dissuading children from taking part in the vicious cycle that claimed his life as well as those of his victims. The fact remains, even murderers are tolerated by society, if even only up to a point. The same cannot be said of men who commit the crimes Sandusky was convicted of. I personally have no pity for this man, nor would I ever wish to live near him or have him anywhere near my siblings or friends children. But that is precisely the point. My fears, and those of my fellow citizens, rational and otherwise, should not form the basis of a rational society’s response to the most heinous of crimes. Justice should not be slave to hate and revenge. Even the worst of us are worth at least basic dignity. Nelson Mandela, himself a victim of the horrors of prison culture, had this to say on the subject: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” That then is the standard we must uphold, and the goal we must strive for. But we are not there yet, and we have not made the reforms that are needed to make the sentence imposed upon Sandusky truly just. Justice is not revenge. It is meant to be a statement of values made fact by action. ”.
It has been reported that Sandusky has fallen into abject depression and has been placed on “suicide watch”, stripped naked save for a smock and devoid of any distraction or comfort save for a concrete slab. This may seem fitting punishment for a man who raped children, but once again justice is not meant to be “fitting”: it is meant to be reasoned and just. We cannot impose sentence as a form of torture. It does not erase the wrongs done to the victims by in turn making the victimizer into a victim. It further degrades those victims, making them the excuse for wanton and useless cruelty and inhumanity. How are we any different from Sandusky if we torture or abuse him under the aegis of justice? Are we not then guilty of predatory behavior? Certainly not as gravely predatory and cruel as Sandusky was, but is justice really a matter of degrees of cruelty? Are civilization and humanity really so fickle and mendacious? Is there truely no medium between unwarranted absolution and unbefitting revenge?
And so we once more return to Plato and his Laws. If the stain of that evil committed by a member of society does not fade in his own mind, and the contemplation of a life lived in such a state of horrors as life in a prison system all but designed to torture and annihilate those such as himself is too odious to endure, then he can “think on the better way of death, and take leave of [his] life”. I do not believe that the state has the right to take the life of its citizens and residents. I do not believe it has the right to torture and maim those who it, however rightfully, abjures. But I do believe in justice. So we are met with a dilemma. If we are not capable yet as a society to adequately, justly, handle an offender, and we as a society do not have the right to take the life of a citizen or resident, then we must demure towards individual agency. If we cannot make a reasoned and just choice, leave it to the man himself. Let him take his fate into his hands. I posit three choices for the condemned:
1. He chooses conventional imprisonment in the general population, fully understanding the risks and potential outcome of such a choice.
2. He chooses the physical safety of custodial imprisonment, which amounts to perpetual solitary confinement and removal from all other human beings into a life of full contemplation of the deeds he has committed.
3. He is allowed to sacrifice his life in the name of society, his personal conception of eternal justice and of any shred of dignity remains to him.
These options may not please us, they may even disgust and enrage us, but reasoned justice is not meant to entertain our personal notions of vengeance: it is meant to hold a society to a better standard then its members display therein. There are worse things than death, and there are better things than salacious and childish notions of revenge. Judicially sanctioned suicide as one option among the two others listed is the best of the bad options we now have as a society that has not yet reached is promise of full and reasonable enlightenment and ethical democracy. Let Sandusky be the end of Sandusky. Let us not stain ourselves with his ignominy and shame.