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What defending the weak requires (hint: it’s not a gun)

December 16, 2009

“If we are to have real peace in the world, we will have to begin with the children” —Mahatma Gandhi

(I wrote this article on December 1, 2009.)

The defendants in the Richmond High School gang rape are going to court today. NPR’s Richard Gonzales, who hails from the East Bay city, returned to speak with old friends who now live and work in the community. I heard his report on Morning Edition.

The Richmonders spoke of fathers leaving and jobs drying up. They characterize the Richmond of old as “rough” and “blue collar,” but it wasn’t until the plague of crack cocaine that it became “dangerous.” But even for a city infested by gangs and crime, the gang rape of a 16-year-old student outside her homecoming dance — with perhaps 20 students looking on and nearby residents in earshot — rattled people. Condemnation from outside descended swiftly (perhaps made easier by the race and class of the community? No one emailed the Columbine High School community to condemn them.), and the defenses of Richmond sprang to life. “They are hardworking, good kids,” said a Richmond High School guidance counselor. “We have failed our boys and girls,” lamented the head of the local rape crisis center.

No one wants to be stained with the moral failing of twenty people. But these defenses sound both hollow and clichéd. When pressed by Gonzales, both interviewees edged closer to the truth. There was no excuse, “under-resourced community” notwithstanding, said the rape crisis representative. “Where has their humanity gone?” asked the high school counselor.

They spoke of how their young people had not learned to empathize. That’s not it. We have failed our boys and girls, but not by ignoring empathy or humanity. We have failed them by not teaching them that evil exists. We want to believe the best of them, as Rousseau did. We want to believe they are “good kids.” How many mothers, fathers, grandparents and relatives said that while they ignored the telltale signs of drug abuse? (I personally know three.) But they are not “good kids.” They are our kids, and that makes them precious. But we must teach them to identify and resist evil — actively. This goes for drugs, violence, bullying and sexual harassment. They should be ready to endure the taunts and rejection of their classmates to protect others — by standing firm in their words, barring the way of the evildoers, and if necessary as a last resort, using physical force to protect the victim and repel the evildoers.

Yes, I used the word “evildoers.” Kids who commit assault, grab genitals, use drugs — even drink underage — are not “wayward kids.” They are evildoers. This does not mean they should be locked up forever. It just means we call it like we see it so we can respond appropriately. Sometimes, it means a stern talking-to. Sometimes, a grounding is called for. When it’s rape in action, each of us needs to gird him or herself to get into the fight with whatever tools we have at our disposal — cell phones, persuasive words or fists.

We are all fearful of running into the gunsights of evildoers, of becoming their victims. That fear is the worst, most crushing plague of communities like Richmond. But the people there had one thing right: “It could happen anywhere.” Everyone needs hope and security. Affluent suburbanites feel their distance from gangs and drugs is their security. Well-meaning community leaders believe that “empathy” will provide theirs. But the only real security a standing army of friends and neighbors who know evil when they see it — and don’t hesitate to rush to its destruction.

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