Don't Blame Me

March 25, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Is there no argument too bizarre for William L. Kunstler to use in defense of a desperate client? Now he claims it was ''black rage'' that drove Colin Ferguson to kill six and wound 19 people on a Long Island Railroad commuter train.

After taking over Mr. Ferguson's defense, the famous civil-rights lawyer told reporters his client belonged in a mental institution, not prison, because he was driven insane by racism and discrimination. ''Black rage was the catalyst for the insanity,'' says Mr. Kunstler.

With that, Colin Ferguson joins other defendants who claim they were driven to do what they did by somebody's abuse of them.

Defense attorneys for two men accused of beating Reginald Denny almost to death during the Los Angeles riots argued that the heat of the moment and passions of the mob compelled them to beat Mr. Denny and other innocent passers-by to bloody pulps.

Lorena Bobbitt admitted cutting off her husband's penis, taking it for a little drive, then throwing it into a vacant field; but she justified it all as an act of revenge for repeated acts of physical and psychological abuse, including rape, by her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt.

Erik and Lyle Menendez admitted to the 1989 shotgun slayings of their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez, but justified it as a way to stop their repeated abuse, including allegations of sexual molestation by the father.

Pensacola attorneys appealing the conviction of Michael Griffin for shooting the abortion doctor David Gunn claim that an abusive diet of grisly anti-abortion literature and videos fed to Griffin by a local zealot so disturbed his mind that he confessed to a crime he didn't do (although witnesses say he did).

Are murder, maiming and other mayhem the sort of behavior we want our courts to encourage as a proper way to respond to abuse?

Some verdicts say ''yes.'' The Denny defendants received lighter convictions than the prosecution wanted. Mrs. Bobbitt received a few weeks under mental observation. The Menendez brothers' two trials ended in hung juries. Don't blame the lawyers. They're just doing their job. Blame society. We set the standards.

The law, in its wisdom, has long recognized the eternal inner battle between our rational and our emotional selves. Second-degree murder, manslaughter and the insanity defense permit the law to make distinctions between cold, calculated, premeditated murder and killings mitigated by circumstances.

Who is responsible for my actions? Am I a victim because of something I did to me or because of something others did to me?

Such questions underlie the debates over poverty, health care, civil rights and other social reforms. Shall we take a punitive approach to welfare -- kick 'em off, make 'em work or let 'em rot -- or spend more on day care, health care, income supplements and job training, the big-ticket items that give the poor every chance to help themselves get off welfare?

Should people be required to buy their own health insurance, with government help, or should government provide it?

Should minorities and women be required to run the race with no special preferences, or have they been so long abused by whites and men that the running track is vastly uneven.?

Abuses exist. They should be rooted out and, wherever possible, punished. But we ask for trouble if we use abuse to justify every act, no matter how criminal or bizarre, that has been committed by the abused. If everything is forgivable, then everything is permissible.

At some point, society must circumscribe the actions we are allowed to take in response to abuse. We have a responsibility as individuals to recognize when we have been wronged and to seek help. Society has a responsibility to provide networks of support for victims of various kinds of abuse, reducing their incentives to take the law into their own hands.

As the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, it may not be your fault that someone has knocked you down, but it is your fault if you don't try to get back up.

8, Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.


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