Saturday, April 14, 2007


A (Limited) Defense of Terry Moran

At the risk of incuring the ire of my colleague John Podhoretz, Terry Moran does raise an interesting point in his otherwise harsh rhetorical beatdown of the Duke lacross players:
[P]erhaps the outpouring of sympathy for Reade Seligman, Collin Finnerty and David Evans is just a bit misplaced. They got special treatment in the justice system--both negative and positive. The conduct of the lacrosse team of which they were members was not admirable on the night of the incident, to say the least. And there are so many other victims of prosecutorial misconduct in this country who never get the high-priced legal representation and the high-profile, high-minded vindication that it strikes me as just a bit unseemly to heap praise and sympathy on these particular men.

As students of Duke University or other elite institutions, these young men will get on with their privileged lives. There is a very large cushion under them--the one that softens the blows of life for most of those who go to Duke or similar places, and have connections through family, friends and school to all kinds of prospects for success.They are very differently situated in life from, say, the young women of the Rutgers University women's basketball team.
The point about the Rutgers students is irrelevant, though Moran's next point that there are lot of cases of prosectutorial misconduct that the media doesn't cover -- often involving defendants of color.

First of all, one should keep in mind that most of these "double standard" arguments are doomed to failure because rarely are the parallels exact. Yet, it is human nature to see connections in one form or another. And so, the most overused counterargument in the L'Affaire Imus was that "Hip-hop uses the word 'ho', so why should Imus have to be penalized?"

As if, we haven't been taught since we were in children that just because little Jimmy down the streets gets away with stuff that's wrong, it doesn't mean you do. Furthermore, there are certain things that a 12 year old might get away with that a 21-year old wouldn't. In the same vein, certain words coming from a 20-something rapper on a CD are different than similar sounding words coming from a 66-year old radio talk show host who pals around with presidential candidates and congressional leaders.

And, ultimately, the latter is what much of this incident boils down to: Varying power relations within society. It's not that Imus said something that he'd said however many times before; no, this time what tripped up the I-Man was the disproportionate power Imus has in relation to the Rutgers U. players -- as opposed to many political or media targets he subjects to his abuse.

And societal power structure is ultimately what Moran is getting to. It's uncomfortable to think about, but despite the cultural influence that African-Americans may have (in music, fashion, language, etc.), social and class inequities related to race remain a major problem to overcome.

And those inequities can arise in the most unexpected of circumstances -- with at times fatal results.

Look, Moran was wrong to suggest that the Duke players aren't legitimate victims. Let's make that perfectly clear.

But, let's distill what happened to these guys to the barest essence (leaving aside the arguable points that Moran raised and Podhoretz correctly dismissed): Three young Duke lacrosse players (all white) joined with their fellow players to hire the services of women of some questionable virtue (strippers) for a party. This can be considered an immoral, though not illegal act. One stripper, Crystal Gail Mangum, later accuses Seligman, Finnerty and Evans -- of rape. They are indicted by an ambitious district attorney, Mike Nifong, running for re-election. They are smeared and pre-judged guilty by many black Duke professors (and media).

It becomes clear pretty early that there is not much to this case, but Nifong allows the players to dangle in the wind until the state bar lodges ethics charges against him and he removes himself from the case. The state attorney general then acquitted the players last week.

The lacrosse team has its season cancelled; the head coach is fired; the players have their reputations damaged -- and they are put through a hellish legal limbo for a year.

Could there be anything worse in terms of how law-enforcement could treat innocent men?

Well, yes.

Consider the case of three other young men (all black). They decide to frequent an establishment which offers the services of women of some questionable virtue (a strip club) as the concluding event for a bachelor party.

Alas, an undercover police officer was at the club, notorious for drugs and prostitution use, noted a verbal altercation outside the club involving the three young men. Claiming to overhear one of them say that he had a weapon in his car, the cop alerted his colleagues nearby. The three men get in the car. Police officers descend. The undercover cop claims that one of the men in the car reaches into his waist, seemingly for a gun. Minutes later, the car accelerates crashing into a police van; there is a hail of bullets -- 50 in all, 31 coming from one cop.

One of the three men is dead. All three were unarmed.

The cops say that they identified themselves; the survivors say they didn't know that the man coming out of the darkness with a drawn gun was a police officer and they accelerated the car to escape being shot.

This is not a fantastical story. It is a description of what happened in Queens, New York, last November. The dead man, Sean Bell, was the groom supposed to be wed the next day. The other two, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield were seriously wounded.

Now, the actions of the police happened within the spur of a moment and can't fairly be compared to the arrogant abuse of power that the Durham DA is accused of. But, one can only say "seems" because three of the five cops involved in the Bell shooting are under indictment; one is white (the one who shot 31 times); the other two are Hispanic black and African-American. The legal process has to work its way out.

Still, even as the seeming victims in this case, Bell and Co. are, like their counterparts at Duke, on the receiving end of unfounded smears themselves -- coming from NYPD sources: The cops claim that a supposed "fourth man" with a gun ran from the scene. Yet, even despite sweeps through the neighborhoods of Bell, Guzman and Benefield, a fourth man has yet to be found. A last-minute witness was presented to the grand jury -- even as they were deliberating -- who claimed to see the mysterious fourth man. The grand jury evidently found him unbelievable.

Another story came out of nowhere from a convict who claimed that Bell once shot him; he retracted his story a day later.

The point is that in two situations featuring an age-old scenario -- young men seeking strippers -- bad things happened to two sets of three men. The moral errors of three white men ended with them caught in the legal system with a reckless prosecutor for a year; the moral error of three black men ended up with one dead and the others facing long-term physical damage.

The Duke lacrosse players were victims of circumstance and an abusive prosecutor. The Queens black men were victims of circumstance and law-enforcement error -- that may, stress may be criminal.

The Duke players remain victims. But, based on what happened in Queens, it could have been a hell of a lot worse had they been black. One of inequities that American society still has to resolve is that the margin of error in what are everyday events can be much narrower -- with far more drastic consequences -- if an individual is black rather than white.

In that limited sense, Terry Moran has a point.

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