Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Sad morning here today. The youngest wondered if the Bigger Sister’s bunny was hungry and went to feed her, then came back to ask if she was dead.

Yes, Bunny is.

Now the house is full of tears.

Whatever the cause, I can’t help but think it was general neglect and diffuse responsibility, in which I also played a part. Bunny stayed in her hutch in the Bigger Sister’s room, alone, and didn’t come out to play often. She was easily ignored: that’s an excuse.

Confronted after the murder of his brother, Cain asked a rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?

The answer is yes.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, “Meditation XVII,” Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623)

We, all of us, are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of this, our only world, and all creatures on it, particularly those in our immediate care; each supports the other.


Schools are some of my favorite places in the world. Were I to rank the pleasures in my life, they would be there with libraries, forests, and the quiet of an old church. Something of the smell of reheated surplus cheese and frozen foods drags me back to the glory days of my childhood. Even during the horrible high school years, I belonged in a school if not with those particular kids: college was a wonderland. And I still want to teach social studies.

After Sandy Hook, our neighbors clamoured for our district to do something, anything, in response. They did. They instituted exactly the same precautions already in place at Sandy Hook Elementary the day Adam Lanza came to class. Now when I pick up my children from school, or come as the Mystery Reader, I don’t belong there. I’m an outsider unless in a crowd. Best I should leave the way I came.

There’s some talk of additional measures to have the schools resemble even more a fortress, a factory, a psychiatric hospital, a prison. This seems to me counterproductive. The impulse to be wary, to hold potential threats at a distance, is strong, instinctive. But exactly the opposite of what is required.

Another thing these shooters had in common was they did not belong. While not necessarily outcast, they lived on the outskirts of society. It’s easy to lose someone on the edges or in the cracks. It’s also easy to see him as the other and for him* to respond in kind.

Further barriers between us will only enhance the loneliness, will only set us apart from each other, will only add yet another brick in the wall and tear to the fabric of a society already rent by powerlessness and despair. A community is not built by pep rallies and slogans, but painstakingly, one welcoming smile at a time. We know this: we gather round each other for comfort in times of sadness and fear.

We must open our arms, embrace the least of these our brothers, and find strength in belonging together.

Before we too are outside in the dark.

* Brenda Ann Spencer is the exception that proves the rule.

In the long history of Man’s inhumanity to Man, it is ever so

While reading In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Phillipines, I came across mention of a disturbingly familiar topic. War is hell.

From The New York Times, April 15, 1902, the following (also at wikisource).

WASHINGTON, April 14.—The Senate Committee on the Philippines began the week with the intention of making an investigation of the charges to the effect that the “water cure,” so-called, is practiced on the insurgents, and Charles S. Riley of Northampton, Mass., formerly a Sergeant in Company M, Twenty-sixth Volunteer Infantry, was the first witness Called with that end in view.

Mr. Riley said that he had been in the Philippines from Oct. 25, 1899, to March 4, 1901. In reply to questions by Senator Rawlins, he said he had witnessed the “water cure” at Igbaras, in the Province of Iloilo, on Nov. 27, 1900. It was administered to the Presidente or chief Filipino official of the town. He said that upon the arrival of his command at Igbaras the Presidente was asked whether runners had been sent out notifying the insurgents of their presence, and that upon his refusal to give the information he was taken to the convent where the witness was stationed and the water cure was administered to him.

This official was, he said, a man about forty years of age. When he (the witness) first saw him he was standing in the corridor of the convent, stripped to the waist and his hands tied behind him, with officers and soldiers about. The man, he said, was then thrown under a water tank which held about 100 gallons of water, and his mouth placed directly under the faucet and held open so as to compel him to swallow the water which was allowed to escape from the tank. Over him stood an interpreter repeating one word, which the witness said he did not understand, but which he believed to be the native equivalent of “confess.” The Presidente agreed to tell what he knew, was released, and allowed to start away. He was not, however; permitted to escape. Water was brought in a five-gallon can, one end of a syringe was placed in it and the other in the man’s mouth. As he still refused a second syringe was brought and one end of it placed in the prostrate man’s nose. He still refused, and a handful of salt was thrown into the water. This had the desired effect, and the Presidente agreed to answer questions.

As Cruel as Society Demands

I am not quite sure how this august panel of nine judges decides what constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment, unless it is by simply following the precedent rather than considering whether the punishment was properly enacted and in conformity with the severity of the crime. The majority’s opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana relies on Coker v. Georgia, which held that sentence of death is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape, and so decides that the death penalty is also excessive here.

While the opinion protests the utter cruelty of the acts in the present case, I suspect that the Court has allowed themselves to be guided too much by care for recent precedent and not considered fully the disparity between the crime and the punishment. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, finds “evolving standards of decency” allow the rapist to live because few states passed legislation prescribing death for the crime of rape. As well, because of various institutional features in our system of justice, the prosecution of cases seeking the death penalty for rape might further harm the victim.

In my opinion, the Louisiana statute was not cruel enough. The simple death of modern executions is quick and relatively painless. Better would be if the criminal were hung, drawn, and quartered, with his head impaled on a stake on the city walls to warn others. J. Kennedy would disagree, When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint. And yet, the Court explicitly exempts crimes against the State:

Our concern here is limited to crimes against individual persons. We do not address, for example, crimes defining and punishing treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug kingpin activity, which are offenses against the State. As it relates to crimes against individuals, though, the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.

If the State can punish crimes against itself, then why cannot a rape victim choose the punishment for her assailant?

I fear that our Law has backed itself into a corner over time. By removing all punishments other than fines or length of imprisonment, we find ourselves unable to respond proportionately to crimes. How long should we imprison a rapist? Ten years? One might as well fail to file one’s taxes.

If the State is not willing to act in retribution, then the more humane punishments of confining the criminal to the general population of a prison, while widely publishing the crimes committed, or of declaring the criminal an outlaw, should suffice. In either case, public opinion will devise its own suitable punishment.