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Acts of Vengeance

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2010-10-18


It's not surprising that the two Rutgers University students charged with invasion of privacy have gone into deep hiding since the death of Tyler Clementi on September 23rd. As everyone knows by now, Tyler was a gay student at Rutgers who killed himself after his date with another student was streamed live over the internet by his roommate. The roommate and an accomplice who were both arrested, charged, and released on bail before Tyler's suicide have since gone into deep seclusion. The outrage over their cruel actions and the awful consequences that followed have caused them to live like fugitives.

Many people believe that the kids are getting off easy by not having to face the wrath of a horrified populace. The public reaction to this terrible story has been galvanic, with intensely felt responses coming from a surprising array of sources across the nation. As with any lightning rod event, the death of Tyler Clementi has forced gay and straight citizens alike to question the troubling social ills associated with the incident intolerance and homophobia, the invasion of privacy, the implementation of hate crime legislation, the high rates of suicide and substance abuse among gay teenagers, the shocking callousness evident in an informal computer era. People hoping to make some sense of this tragedy are engaging in honest, open dialogues about these difficult questions with the goal of preventing further, heartbreaking, losses of life.

Unfortunately, there is also a strong and vocal number of people who seem to want nothing more than to get some rope, pitchforks and torches together and pull the kids out of their hideout. The appalling actions of the two have so incensed people that the prospect of giving in to feelings of bloodlust and revenge has become a desired impulse. The two students have received numerous death threats since the story broke, and live in fear of violent reprisals.

It's a natural reaction, I think, to want immediate and bloody vengeance dispensed after an atrocity has been committed, and I recognize it's difficult to ratchet down the adrenaline when your sense of outrage has been engaged. Still, it is my hope that after a few weeks most people will return to level-headedness and realize that there is a big difference between justice and vengeance. Justice is the civilized application of law by a rational people; vengeance is the act of a lynch mob. It may be naive to think in such black and white terms, but I've seen too many examples of vengeance unleashed to know that it is the duty of all civilized people to fight to the death the concept of punishment without due process.

The 20th century Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was a bastard of the very first order, a despicable tyrant who terrorized and bankrupted his people for decades, yet even his strongest detractors must have shuddered at the nature of his demise. The Romanian Revolution ignited in the final weeks of 1989, and on December 22, Ceausescu and his wife tried to flee the angry crowds. They were captured that same day by the military, and given a military trial 3 days later, on Christmas Day. At the trial, they were found guilty of crimes against the people and condemned to death; hours later, a firing squad executed the couple. Amidst the exultations of the Romanian people for the death of the tyrant, some Romanians wondered if the swift execution of Ceausescu wasn't enacted in order to conceal the misdeeds of other higher ups in the government or military. The lack of a proper, civilized trial meant that important information about the Ceausescu regime would never see the light of day.

Images from the Los Angeles riots in 1992 still torment many Americans, especially the oft-repeated footage of a white truck driver being pulled from his vehicle and savagely beaten by vengeance-seeking rioters. The fury caused by the "not guilty" verdict given to the white policemen in the Rodney King trial sparked the violence that caused the six days of rioting and the death of 53 people. Reginald Denny, the truck driver, survived the attack only because four LA citizens all black saw the attack on TV and decided to try to save him. They managed to pull Denny back into his vehicle, and one of his protectors, also a truck driver, was able to maneuver the vehicle out of danger.

It is worth mentioning that Denny didn't seek vengeance against his attackers. In a highly publicized TV appearance three years later, Denny forgave one of his attackers on the air, and hugged the mother of the man who had beaten him with a cinderblock. The magnanimity of Denny's gesture didn't impress some commentators the conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh scoffed at Denny's apology, convinced it was part of some politically orchestrated plot. It never occurred to Limbaugh whose audience includes large numbers of evangelical Christians that the reason Denny forgave his attacker was because he was a Christian who believed in forgiveness and not vengeance.

The trial of 9/11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui illustrates the remarkable strength of due process in the American legal system. It's hard to imagine a more hated defendant in American history though it was proven later that Moussaoui was not a direct participant in the 9/11 attacks (he had been arrested in August, 2001), he was a committed Al-Queda operative who knew about the attacks and didn't say anything during interrogation. During the trial, he talked often of his hatred for Americans and his wish that more would be killed by Muslim terrorists. The prosecution, wanting a death penalty conviction for the vengeance-seeking public, coached witnesses and violated several court orders placed by the presiding judge. In spite of the intense public desire to see Moussaoui put to death, the furious judge would not allow the process to be sullied and eventually, Moussaoui was spared the death penalty. After the verdict, a dazed Moussaoui said: "I now see that it is possible that I can receive a fair trial even with Americans as jurors." It must have been shocking for the jihadist to discover that his sworn enemy valued justice more than blood.

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