Thursday, May 06, 2010

Shocking the System

News out of Philadelphia this week was…well, complicated.

On May 4, a seventeen-year-old high school senior named Steve Consalvi did what many seventeen-year-old high school seniors do: He made a poor choice. Steve, who was observing the Phillies-Cardinals game at Citizens Bank Park, decided that his vantage point was not exciting enough for his temperament. So he hopped a fence in the top of the eighth inning and strutted around the outfield. This sort of benign tomfoolery happens every so often at a Major League Baseball game, and usually ends up with the perpetrator being tackled within seconds by one or more beefy security guards.

Not so in Philadelphia.

Watching the video—a widescreen shot of the playing field—Mr. Consalvi , waving a white towel, made it clear to the middle of the outfield (past Jason Werth, whom, we were assured, assumed a “defensive position”), before security personnel on both ends of the field can be seen running toward him. As the security men drew close, Mr. Consalvi made several quick turns in a successful effort to elude them.

But rather than tackle him, as they seem to have had several opportunities to do, the security team just surrounded him, presumably thinking he’d give himself up. Which of course he didn’t.

And then it happened. One of them—oh, wait, that guy’s not “Security”; his shirt says “POLICE”—pulls a gun, and fires. Down goes Steve, towel and all. Fortunately for all involved, it was a taser gun, which, while not fun to be shot with, ranks way ahead of real bullets or even rubber bullets on the scale of “Things I’d Like to be Shot With.” Steve stayed down, seemingly immobilized, as the officer cuffed him. Seconds later, he was being escorted off the field, a bit wounded and woozy, but coherent enough to shout “Go Phils!” as he is led off the field in handcuffs, to the roar of the fans.

Naturally, the internet and talk radio were asked to weigh in.

Overnight the debate raged: was the officer right to taser this kid? Personally, I think getting zapped by 50,000 volts of electricity and walking it off is a better deal than risking a meniscus tear in the knee after being jumped by an overweight security guy (though come to think of it, those fellows in Philly looked more like the grounds crew than any security team I’ve seen).

But that’s just me.

Many people wrote, blogged, and phoned in arguing that tasering was excessive, even Constitutionally untenable as “cruel and unusual,” and that the event was a harmless prank. Others were more hawkish arguing that (a) you never know the perp’s intentions until it’s too late (many pointed to the deranged fan who stabbed Monica Seles in the back in 1993); and (b) if harsh punishment is not meted out, order cannot be restored. (Although, this argument lost some heft when the following night another fan burst onto the field in Philly. He was not tasered).

Nevertheless, did the punishment fit the crime? Which underscores a different question: What is the purpose of punishment?

Many argue that the purpose of punishment is to reform, to reshape the criminal. This is why many prisons are officially known as “correctional facilities”—there to facilitate correctiveness. Unfortunately, particularly in the case of prisons, the opposite result is often achieved: prisoners become more hardened to that way of life, and leave more dangerous than when they went in.

Others see punishment as less concerned with what already happened and more concerned with what will happen next. Punishment, they argue, acts as a deterrent against future criminals. When they witness what happened to the criminal, they will be less inclined to follow his lead.

Some argue that when society punishes, it is less interested in the criminal—past or future—than in society as a whole. If the criminal is locked up, he can’t hurt anyone else. Still others take this argument one step further, believing that punishment exists as a form of vengeance, to “pay back” the victim in some way.

The Torah’s view of punishment incorporates all of these areas, as well as another. The Torah lists many if/then scenarios describing the good that will come from good behavior and the evil in store for bad behavior. The Navi, in particular, is replete with examples of “Shuvah eilai ve’ashuvah Aleichem—Return to Me and I will return to you.” God clearly wants us to behave and serve Him; even His punishments are toward that end: Rehabilitation.

The Torah also describes certain punishments and concludes with the phrase, “and all the nation will hear and see, and will not sin anymore.” Punishment as deterrent.

The Torah also defines capital crimes and commands the courts to “destroy the evil from your midst.”

But there is a fourth idea inherent in the Torah’s view of punishment: absolution—the notion that punishment cleanses a person spiritually. This concept was best described to me as a “spiritual workout.” A person with a heart condition who is ordered by his doctor to adopt a diet and exercise regimen, would not see that as “punishment,” even though giving up certain foods and drinks may be difficult, and forcing oneself onto a treadmill regularly can seem torturous.

Similarly, God’s “punishments” exist, generally speaking, to get our souls back “into shape.”

The beauty of Yom Kippur is that, through prayer, we can be absolved without the need for punishment. Although we do fast, at least we don’t get tasered.


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