Crime and Punishment

Police violence.
(From an unpublished letter, 1996)

Several weeks have passed since the video-taped beating of two illegal Mexicans by California police. It brought an immediate outcry, even from the highest officials of the nation. However, if not for the video-taping, witnessed worldwide, would this assault have provoked the response it did? Without the graphic evidence, and almost instant replay, it is doubtful whether this latest incident would have received any attention.

Police assaults on unarmed, peaceful civilians are not rare occurrences, nor are they a recent phenomenon, or directed only at persons of color, illegal immigrants or possible criminals. Police brutality has, unfortunately, a long history. It is now almost 60 years since I became a victim of an assault by a New York police officer. While the public would rather forget accounts of police brutality, its victims, however, are often condemned to a life scarred and even crippled by the trauma of the assault:

In 1936, a recent refugee from Nazi Germany, I had discovered New York's Central Park when I was accosted by a police officer and asked for identification. Perhaps, my membership in the Artist Union and the YMHA (The Young Man's Hebrew Association) must have appeared sufficiently suspicious and provocative to be ordered into his boat at the edge of the park lake. In the middle of the lake I was relieved of my money, then beaten senseless to shouts of "Damned Jew bastard . . . you God-damned Jew bastard. . .!" Drawing his gun and pointing it at me, his final words were: "If you ever say anything about this, I'll kill you."

Having fled Nazi Germany to France and finally to America, I saw no further escape than to attempt suicide which landed me in a mental institution instead. Despite the officer's repeated threats that he would kill me if I ever said anything, I did report the incident. A subsequent inquiry, however, appeared mostly aimed at discrediting my accusation. Without any attempt to find any of the many witnesses to what had happened (and heard my screams for help), one young, foreign refugee's account could readily be dismissed.

Unfortunately, the victim can never dismiss or forget the trauma of such an assault, especially coming from someone you expect to be a representative of "law and order" - a police officer, meant to protect you. Perhaps, the time is long overdue when authorities, as well as the public, should realize the long-term effects on a victim. It is a trauma which even after an almost lifetime finds no relief, but continues to pursue and fester. "If you ever say anything I'll kill you", continues to threaten most everything you do or try to initiate.

Wary and suspicious of every stranger, any meeting, even a "friendly" social gathering turns into a fearful encounter, and a career is bound to end in failure, perhaps even welcomed. Therapy may not be able to help someone who can no loner trust any stranger, even one promising to be helpful. The victim is condemned to sink deeper and deeper into silence stricken "privacy ". It took 46 years before I could bring myself to recount the "incident" to my wife.

The number of police assaults reported (let alone recorded) must be small compared to actual occurrences. The authorities do not appear to really face up to this most unpleasant problem. Yet the seemingly growing incidents of police assaults should require a thorough inquiry into, first: the causes and reasons for police violence, and second: what can be done?

In almost 60 years of reflecting on possible answers, may I offer the following suggestions: Police violence, I believe, is the ultimate manifestation of an abuse of authority, which may begin the moment a man is given "authority" and with it the power to confront those who may be powerless. It is a formidable power which can, too readily, be abused. In its more benign stages, mere arrogance may be its first manifestation, but the sense of authority and power may soon escalate into more aggressive behavior, especially when challenged. "Authority" may then be perceived as "authoritarian", with often dire consequences.

Given the ready availability of deadly power, rage can quickly escalate into deadly violence. How to prevent such possibly violent, even deadly escalation (or diffuse it once it starts) may be the more serious problem: Constant supervision and vigilance by superiors, plus periodic workshops and seminars on "managing anger and rage" might be of benefit, as well as promoting greater tolerance, civility and respect. But the possibility of rage, as well as prejudice, must be addressed early, during the first stages of recruitment and training. Certainly, tests should be available to identify individuals who may be prone to quick temper and frustration, as well as racial and ethnic prejudices.

My assailant's evident hatred of Jews and foreigners surely must have had a long simmering history, long before it exploded in uncontrollable rage one summer day in 1936 and left its victim psychologically stunted. With early testing, proper training, guidance and supervision, the assault could have been prevented as can most more recent cases. A police, less prone to violence, should be considered a reasonable expectation from those we look to for protection.

  • Governor Cuomo of New York State, in response to repeated reports of "Police violence", created a Commission in 1985. After the many years of silence I wrote to the Governor, as well as to Mayor Koch of New York City, recalling my experience and offered to testify in any inquiry, especially on the problem of long range trauma and effects on the victim of police violence:

    My offer to testify was never taken up. Authorities, apparently, do not care to be advised or questioned. Perhaps, the public, as well, would rather not acknowledge that its Police, Officers of the Law, its protectors, defenders against crime, can, itself, turn criminal.

  • The manner in which my "case" was handled (and probably that of countless others) has little in common with justice. Does "Justice" in fact exist when economics and influence determine its outcome: one kind of justice for the affluent, and another for the poor, the underprivileged, those who are merely assigned a lawyer, any lawyer. "Equality before the law", becomes unattainable for the poor, the unprivileged. It is they who fill the jails. But the sense for justice, for fairness, appears to be universal, imbedded already in the consciousness of children, perhaps the first and fundamental "human right".

  • What if all prisoners, everywhere, were to be released, and all prisons, as well as punishment, abolished, together with so-called "Justice" systems. Most (legal) systems appear only vaguely and indirectly related to Justice. Within the symbiotic relationship between "crime" and "punishment", might not crime, eventually, begin to subside and finally cease to exist without the promise of punishment? Criminal behavior seems more encouraged by circumstances than discouraged, where crime appears as the ultimate "Free Enterprise". Whether one is caught or not is more a matter of chance ( one out of ten), particularly in a world which appears often as "nothing but a crap game".

April 20 1961

Mr. Y. Meroz
Ministry for Foreign Affairs
Jerusalem, Israel

Dear Mr Meroz:

I wish to thank you for the courtesy of your letter of March 1. 1961, based on my suggestion which Mrs. Roosevelt had forwarded to Mrs Golda Meir. May I add the following thoughts:

Eichmann will most likely base the substance off his defense upon the contention that he did no more than obey a superior order which he had no right to question, and that he was but a link in a long chain of command. This has always been the excuse of every executioner.

The dilemma lies in the conflict between obedience to an order and obedience to ones conscience, which assumes that even an executioner possesses a conscience and that this conscience should exercise priority over any other consideration.

If we assume an overriding responsibility to which all people are subject - even executioners - how are we then to judge ourselves when we become executioners?If we as Jews, and now judges, are to demonstrate greater moral strength than that which has been inflicted upon us in the past we can demonstrate this strength by setting Eichmann free after his trial. The rewards far such show of strength would be far greater than any possible punishment we would inflict.

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