Sparing the rod

Anthony is taking the week off; we’re rerunning a 2007 column.

When my sons were little boys, during one of their many altercations one of them kicked the other. I yelled and threw a chair—you know how gorillas tear up innocent vegetation and throw it around? Like that.

I admit that if my son had been hurt by a stranger, the stranger would be at risk. My knee jerks, too. If he had been hurt by you, you would be at risk. But because my son was deliberately hurt by my son, things were not so clear. I wasn’t going to hurt my son for hurting my son. That’d be like killing a guy because he killed somebody else. Stupid.

Should I have let him buy his way out with a fine, like a corporation? Should I have denied him companionship? Confined him to his room?

Damned if I know. More than anything else, I just wanted him not to do it again. That was primary, but I also wanted him to be remorseful, to be sincerely sorry he’d deliberately hurt his brother. Why did I want him to feel bad? How could feeling bad be useful? It isn’t, except as an indication that you’re doing something you oughtn’t.

I noticed Richard Ek’s recent Guest Comment about the criminal-justice system’s lack of perfection, especially in regard to the value of DNA testing. I’m continually aware of my own good fortune in managing to stay out of jail, because I know that breaking the law is not a prerequisite for being locked up.

I’ve read that our system of punishment is based on the notion that confinement protects the rest of us from those who have offended the sensibilities of lawmakers and others full of various kinds of fear, and gives prisoners time to reflect on their misdeeds and change their ways. Corrections. Right.

Wrongful imprisonment commands my attention because one man convicted and sentenced to death in Illinois, my home state, and subsequently released because of innocence was Anthony Porter. That Anthony Porter was released in 1999 after 16 years on death row, two days before his scheduled execution. His family had already arranged for his funeral.

The Chicago cops had intimidated a prosecution witness—who hadn’t seen the shootings Porter was accused of—into identifying him as the murderer they were looking for. Neat and tidy.

Anthony Porter, like millions of others, was caught up in the almighty system, the system of punishment—not justice—that’s a haven for sadists and bullies that rewards killer cops with a paid vacation. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Hatred can never answer hatred; all violence is injustice.”

As for my wayward son, I couldn’t think of a punishment that made sense to me, so I hugged him. It was the best I could do.