Former anti-Vietnam radical Katherine Ann Porter--after spending 23 years underground--turned herself in, was convicted for taking part in a robbery in which police officer Walter Schroder was killed, and now has been released after serving six years in a Massachusetts prison. The people in Oregon who knew Porter as Alice Metzinger want her back, as a police detective said, "She was a good citizen when she lived here, and I expect she will be when she comes back." Officer Schroeder's family is less than happy with the light punishment Porter received.
Former Symbionese Liberation Army member Kathleen Soliah--after spending 24 years underground evading the charge of attempted murder (planting bombs under Los Angeles police cars)--was arrested in Minnesota. Now an actress, doctor's wife, and mother of three children, Sara Jane Olson's church proclaimed its "unconditional love," and in one week garnered $1 million
for her defense. According to the community, any crimes she may have committed were "canceled out" by her good works. The Los Angeles Police Department has less charitable thoughts about Sister Soliah.
Leaning to the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key school, even for relatively minor offenses, why are the citizens of these communities so willing to forgive these individuals convicted and under indictment for such heinous crimes?
One writer suggested that we live in a therapeutic age in which having people 'feel good' about themselves replaces 'being good.' This means that soccer-mom-and-community-volunteer Sara Jane Olson is seen to need non-judgmental support and not, as Sister Soliah, to be the victim of a cold and impersonal justice system.
However, I think a simpler explanation is also at work. It is simply that the degree of judgement we direct toward others and the punishment we seek for others' wrong actions is directly related to distance--the distance of our relationship/friendship and the distance of time and space (how long ago an infraction occurred and how far from where we live). NIMBY (not in my backyard) operates in our views of crime and punishment as well as the placement of a waste dump. For example, we only need to contrast the level of our concern for a family member groaning with a migraine headache compared to a TV news report of the wholesale laughter of a village in Rwanda in 1994.
For people who are part of Porter and Olson's present communities, there is a great distance in time and space (over two decades ago and many states away). The two women's current communities support a "They're good people now, why punish them for something that happened so long ago?" For the family of the slain police officer and for the potential victims of car bombings, the absence of close kinship/friendship holds as irrelevant the distance of time and space and leads to a greater desire for real punishment.
From the mother on TV crying out in court that her child shouldn't be executed, to Sister Helen Prejean who came to know Patrick Sonnier as a human being and thus sought to prevent him from being executed by the State of Louisiana (recorded in the book, Dead Man Walking), to Porter and Olson, we see the power of distance at work, both in the call for mercy and the call for punishment.
Justice needs to prevail in our land, but forgiveness by those directly hurt can shatter the attitude "Lock 'em up and throw away the key"-forgiveness and the empathetic thought, "What if that were my child, my friend?"
--Robert H. Tucker
4 October 1999
© Robert H. Tucker, 1999.
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