Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why Can't We Blame Those Who Most Deserve It?

Two high profile cases are in the news today. The first is the kidnapping of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the 11 year old who was kidnapped, raped, and held in a California backyard for 18 years. The second is the discovery of at least 11 women's bodies at a house in Cleveland. If I asked you who is to blame for Dugard's kidnapping, you would probably say her kidnappers are. If I asked you who was to blame for the murders in Cleveland, you would probably pin them on the serial killer. Yet today's coverage points the finger squarely at law enforcement in both cases.

A report from the California Inspector General, which was issued today, says that parole officers had numerous opportunities to discover Dugard during the 10 years they were in charge of supervising her alleged captor. They failed to follow their own procedures in some cases, and in others failed to have decent procedures in the first place. In the Cleveland case, neighbors are coming forward to say that they reported assaults by the alleged perpetrator on their street, and the police did not take them seriously. They also say that there was an odor -- presumably of decomposing bodies -- coming from the property, which was reported but never addressed. At least today, it seems like the answer to whose fault these crimes were is not the perpetrators at all, but law enforcement officials.

So what's going on here? Why have we shifted from outrage at the people who did these things to outrage at the people who didn't catch them? I think what we're seeing is the evolution of people's world view as they try to cope with the horrible things that have occurred.

When the Dugard case first broke, for example, comments on blogs and news sites said things like, "I hope you rot in h*** you sick b*****d." This represented people confronting the idea that there are people out there who do evil things, and we don't know who they are. We heard about the case and conceived of the suspect as sick, twisted, mentally ill, or just plain evil. That scared us, because it seemed so random. If this man could be like this, couldn't anyone? If his neighbors didn't know, do we know about our neighbors?

If there are this sort of person, and/or the alleged murderer in Cleveland, in the world, and if we cannot know who they are, then the world is random. We don't like random. So, as we process these traumatic events, we must move on to the question of how this could have been prevented. If we can't know who is evil, we must rely on those whose job it is to know for us -- the police, the corrections department, etc. We may come to accept that evil people exist, but we don't want to accept that the police can't protect us from them. So now it is their fault.

It's not that there is no logic to investigating what went wrong in these cases. Obviously, we would like to prevent these things from happening again. But in our rush to investigate and prevent, we shouldn't take our eye off the fact that the people most to blame for these crimes are the people who commited them. No one else should suffer solely because we can't accept the randomness of what they did.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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