—-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Should we be defined by our worst moments?
We all have those moments we desperately wish we could take back. We have moments when we show cowardice rather than bravery, heartlessness rather than compassion or prejudice rather than acceptance. These moments are fleeting and they do not, generally, represent the complete person that we have grown to be. In fact, these moments haunt us when we think back on them and often turn us into better individuals than we might have become without them.
Then there are some people whose worst moments are so despicable that it is difficult to believe that their acts don’t define them. I was so horrified at the actions of Brock Turner, the young college man who drunkenly raped an unconscious coed behind a dumpster, that it was hard to think of him objectively. His sense of entitlement disgusted me, and when his father wrote a letter asking for leniency, his statement appalled me. He explained that his son was a good boy who made a mistake while drunk, and said that a long prison sentence “ is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life."
Apparently the judge agreed, and he was in and out of prison in the blink of an eye, which was a slap in the face of his victim and a stain on our justice system, but in reality those twenty minutes probably did not define Brock Turner. If he would have served a reasonable amount of prison time, I could have accepted that he might return to society a good man intent on living a worthwhile life as the young man that his family and friends believe him to be.
Some people need to be defined by their worst moments though, because those moments reflect a lifetime of unacceptably vicious moments. Two years ago James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into a group of counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, not accidentally, and not in a moment of rage, but rather in a carefully planned display of his hatred. Several people were injured and a young woman died because of the hatred of this remorseless young man who proudly displays a picture of Adolf Hitler on his nightstand. His attorneys speak of his mental illness and traumatic childhood, and I am sure these things shaped him, but he has become a hateful man with a history showing years of documented racist and anti-Semitic behavior. These attorneys ask for an “expression of mercy” and a “conviction that no individual is wholly defined by their worst moments.” In this case, I believe that Mr. Fields’ worst moments most likely do define him, and his serving a lifetime sentence could protect society from anymore of his defining moments.
Yes, there are those whose worst moments are just representations of who they are and what they believe, but for most of us our worst moments, much like our best moments are just small pieces that make us complete. I used to tell my students that if you are about to do something, and your tummy starts to feel funny (and you are figuring ways to hide it from your parents) then you are probably entering one of your “worst moments.” This would be a good time to make another choice.
I believe in second chances. I believe that there are very few, if any, times when the death penalty is warranted. I believe that generally life in prison with no chance of parole is a harsh sentence that should be delivered with the utmost of care. When an individual loses all respect for the society that surrounds him though, I believe that the rest of us must be protected from him/her. Hatred is a destructive force that destroys the hater before it destroys the hated. Once the very fiber of a person has been so eroded by hate, then yes, he/she should be defined by worst moments and punished accordingly.
Speaking of our justice system, I enjoyed this week’s book, Mirror, Mirror, A Legal Thriller (The Warrick-Thompson Files Book) by Deborah Hawkins very much. Ms Hawkins does a masterful job fleshing out her characters, and in this novel her protagonist, Jeff Ryder, grows in leaps and bounds. Great story.
As always a complete review of this book follows my blog.