Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Fallacy of Good Intentions

In my writing, I find myself sometimes compelled to challenge, to stretch. My intention is not to insult or to disregard the views of others, but rather to expand the discussion. In my religious work, I often feel led to do much the same thing. My vocal ministry has at times been taken as offensive, but I have chosen to speak for reasons and motives beyond myself. Some of what I’ve written has been challenged in return, much as the spoken words I've offered in the context of a religious service.

Once more, I seek the same ends and hope to achieve them. Authorities are now attempting to discern whether the Penn State child molestation case can be prosecuted under the Clery Act. The Act requires the prompt reporting of on-campus crimes to law enforcement agencies and for said crimes to be publicly and statistically documented. The legislation itself has a complicated history, one that is rarely reported in full because the facts are sensitive. I will present the facts of the case, and you can form your own reflections from then, should you wish.

In 1986, Jeanne Clery was a student enrolled at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This much is common knowledge. But among the many details that are not regularly reported are those of race and economic status. Jeanne was wealthy and white. One terrible evening, having returned from a night out of heavy drinking, she returned to her dorm room. Her level of intoxication was so extreme and her judgment so impaired that several other students were very concerned. Those who also lived in the same dorm deliberately kept three doors propped open for the ease of checking on her. Tragically, the unlocked doors provided a fatal and entirely unforeseen consequence; they allowed her attacker to enter the dorm unimpeded.

After robbing the room, the assailant then raped and killed Clery. Details not regularly reported are that her assailant was poor and black. He was also a Lehigh student. In time, he would be caught when he bragged about the crime and showed the stolen goods to other students. Following their daughter’s murder and assault, the parents forced a huge financial settlement from the university. However, they also advanced an incomplete version of the truth. According to their side of the story, it had been egregiously wrong for university police to have allowed the doors to stay open, without documenting the well-meaning reasons why. They attempted to paint the university as dangerous and crime-ridden, which is an extreme exaggeration. Bethlehem has its incidents of violent crime, like any other city, but statistics prove that the campus is very safe.

Rape and violence are egregiously underreported on college campuses. Campus police and the administration often take a hand’s-off approach towards assaults committed against young women. However, it is important that we take into account a truthful retelling of what really happened. Facts should be sufficient enough to ensure that crimes are properly reported and perpetrators are prosecuted. As was true with the Natalee Holloway case, we have discovered that violent acts committed against young white women from privileged backgrounds usually attain far more media coverage. This was also true with the Clery rape and murder. Her family’s wealth also managed to push a bill through the U.S. Congress, where it was eventually signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. It is, as you might expect, now known as the Clery Act.

How are we to address the race and class identification of the rapist/murderer? One line of logic says we ought to be sympathetic towards all historically marginalized groups, especially when economic and class inequality produces a protracted state of cultural famine. However, this sympathy would also mean that we would have to look at the crimes committed a very different way. But would examining this criminal offense from a different light mean that our desire for justice would be somehow changed? To be sure, Jeanne Clery's attacker did not go unpunished. He was eventually put to death by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the murder. For people like me, who oppose the death penalty, regardless of the circumstance, I question this definition of retribution. The tragedy here works on many levels, almost too many to mention.

Again, facts are usually condemning enough. Sometimes well-meaning people make awful situations even worse by transferring their own bias. In the last Meeting for Worship in which I participated, someone rose to state that perhaps evil incarnate is born of those who hold what they think to be entirely noble leanings. It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And other times, people do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Both of these fallacies are related, but neither will advance us as a race towards greater understanding.

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