Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Crime Victims' Act at 25

This is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Events will be taking place across the country, as they have every year since 1981. President Obama's proclamation notes that this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Victims of Crime Act of 1984, which imposed various fines and other financial penalties on federal offenders to fund services for victims. The silver anniversary of such a laudable and historically momentous ongoing event should be more widely celebrated.

In world historical terms, the respect for victims represented by the victims’ rights movement is nothing less than astonishing. As Gil Bailie argues in Violence Unveiled, the awakening of empathy for victims in cultures influenced by the Gospels is the paramount driver of Western history. Throughout human history, human victims were considered expendable. When primitive religion needed a scapegoat to make society cohesive, no one was prepared to look too closely at the victims that made this cohesion possible.

In the Hebrew bible, however, and to a lesser degree in Greek tragedy, moral concern about the victims’ plight began to find expression. Then came the story of Jesus – a common criminal, subjected to a common execution, whose story the Gospels told in a way that, in fits and starts, began to turn the world upside down. The moral high ground, it turned out, was with this hapless victim, not the worldly powers who put him to death.

By the 1980s, when the Crime Victims' Act was passed, concern about victims had become so prevalent in the US that a considerable backlash had set in against the excesses of political correctness. PC had given rise to a type of Victomology that the critic Robert Hughes called a “culture of complaint.”

In 1987, I remember wondering about President Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical response to the senseless death of 37 sailors aboard he USS Stark who were mistakenly killed by an Iraq missile in the Persian Gulf. This was during the Iran-Iraq War, in which the US backed Iraq, so in essence the deaths were from friendly fire. Yet Reagan sought to elevate the randomly fallen sailors into full-fledged heroes. This was the same Reagan who not only signed the Victims' Rights Act, but who created a major controversy the following year by visiting SS graves in Bitburg and trying to recast Hitler’s storm troopers as victims of Nazism. (These episodes are recounted in Joseph A. Amato’s A History and a Theory of Suffering.)

One wishes Reagan had shown equal concern for the victims of Salvadoran death squads supported by the US military, but his reinterpretation of the victim / hero dynamic speaks volumes about our culture. Marginalized for millennia of human history, victims have now more and more moved to a central place as the Gospel unmasks the old scapegoating machinery.

I am not sure, however, that “rights” is the right terminology in which to cast this astounding reversal of victims’ status. At Valparaiso University School of Law, my jurisprudence professor, Richard Stith, taught me to be skeptical of the insistence on rights that permeates American society. Would it build more community, and yield better results, if we turned the equation around and spoke instead of duties?

After all, “rights” is not the only powerful word starting with R. Think of:

● Restoration (as in the restorative justice movement )
● Respect (as in dignity)
● Reconciliation (a deeply religious term)
● Recognition (with its Hegelian undertones)

And finally — the most powerful of all the R words for me — Resurrection!

I think of the Olson family in Minnesota. Rolf, Nancy, Sarah, and Karl lost their beloved daughter / sister Katherine to the demonic evil of the “Craig’s list killer,” who shot the vivacious 24-year-old in cold blood and left her to bleed to death stuffed in the trunk of her own car. At sentencing, her family spoke openly of their deep emotional wounds, of how the killer had stolen their future. Faced with this kind of excruciating pain and indescribable loss, the language of “victims’ rights” pales — and the Resurrection becomes an urgent hope.

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