Sunday, June 29, 2008

Our Finer Feelings (by Phila)

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled that it's unconstitutional to execute people who rape children, I've heard and read a lot of gloating over the notion that these rapists will simply end up getting beaten to death by their fellow inmates. It's one of the few things the average American "knows" about incarcerated criminals: they tend to hate child molesters, and will beat and kill them when they can. "Prison justice," they call it, with a faint hint of envy.

The lack of mercy shown by the unmerciful on these occasions is supposed to tell us something about how abysmally low child molesters rate on the moral scale. But I've always suspected that it tells us a lot more about how easily people find things to feel self-righteous about, no matter what they themselves may be guilty of.

You can gun down a child's father in a liquor store robbery. Or beat a child's mother into a coma while raping her. Or vote against childhood healthcare services in your capacity as a member of Congress. Or cheer and wave the flag as a foreign city is bombed. But as long as you hate -- really, really hate -- child rapists, you can flatter yourself that you're on the side of the angels. No matter what you might've done to children through inattention or neglect, or for money -- no matter what you might still be doing -- you aren't as bad as you could be, as long as you can get yourself into a murderous rage over someone else's sexual abuse of a child.

Behind all the sentimental handwringing over the helplessness and innocence of children there's an unspoken assumption that there are better targets for exploitation and abuse and rape and murder. The shadow image of the innocent child who doesn't deserve to be raped is the guilty woman who does, because she wore the wrong clothes or stayed out too late.

We idolize the state of unknowing we call "innocence"...and punish young people for making "bad choices," even when they're a logical result of the ignorance we thrust upon them as a moral ideal. It makes no sense, but who cares? Child-rape cries out for the death penalty specifically because of the lasting psychological damage it inflicts on children...but an adult criminal who was raped as a child deserves no mercy. It's logically indefensible, but so what? Representing children as quasi-angelic messengers of goodness and purity makes them more attractive targets for rapists, and promising these rapists the death penalty in advance gives them no incentive to stop short of murdering their victims. It's dangerous and dumb, but what of it? If it feels good, do it!

McCain and Obama have both denounced the SCOTUS ruling; they agree, as serious men must, that such a "heinous crime" deserves the ultimate punishment. If either man is obliged to drop bombs on children in some other country -- Iraq, let's say -- he'll have no problem being accepted in polite society, though a few hysterics like myself may question whether it really is more "heinous" to rape one child than to mutilate hundreds or thousands with shrapnel.

It all comes down to one's intentions, I guess. The fact that we can overcome our natural abhorrence of hurting children long enough to destroy entire city blocks, regardless of how many children live in them, suggests that our intentions are basically good. Why else would we make such a superhuman effort to put aside our finer feelings?

The fact that we hate people who rape children -- really, really, really hate them, a lot! -- clinches the deal. And if anyone doubts our sincerity, or accuses us of using hackneyed and contradictory abstractions to ennoble or excuse our own everyday brutality, we can always point out that even the most hardened criminals know there's nothing worse than raping a child. QED!

If it were up to me, raping a 20-year-old would seem just as "sick" as raping an eight-year-old, and all the idolaters of innocence, and the self-appointed assessors of other people's "choices," and the people who hold up children as human shields against the justified criticism of policies that are essentially anti-human, would have to fold up their tents and seek honest work.

In the meantime, if children really are so precious that to abuse them, or injure them, or blight their lives is a crime that cries out for merciless punishment, so much the worse for all of us.