Give Cruelty a Chance?

April 08, 1994

It is unnerving, if hardly surprising, that many Americans agree with Singapore in the present controversy over the caning punishment of an 18-year-old American citizen.

The young man who has been sentenced to a caning is Michael Fay of Dayton, Ohio. He was convicted of spray painting cars and other acts of vandalism over the course of a 10-day period. When his family and lawyer appealed his sentence to the court of public opinion, the public turned thumbs down. Journalists who reported on the case were deluged with letters and calls saying, in effect, "Singapore is a safe city because it gets tough with hoodlums!" The Singapore government received the same reaction from Americans. So did the youth's congressman, who, like President Clinton, asked Singapore for leniency.

Citizens of other nations, too, no doubt side with Singapore. We would imagine, for example, that the Japanese would support overwhelmingly this proposition: Singapore's society and criminal justice system are more deserving of respect than Los Angeles' (where two Japanese youths were recently killed in a carjacking).

We say American public reaction is unsurprising because many Americans feel they are under siege by criminals -- and that crime in America is due in part to lenient treatment of criminals. Many are ready to give cruelty a chance. Anything to make the streets safe.

We say it is unnerving because corporal punishment of this type is outside the American tradition, even the tradition of hard line law-'n'-order types. Caning, Singapore-style, involves inflicting pain so severe victims often lose consciousness; they are

revived so they suffer the pain of each successive blow. That is not mere punishment; it is deliberate cruelty. Lashes of the cane cause ruptures of the skin so damaging victims are scarred and, in some cases, crippled for life.

No American jurisdiction today uses even mild forms of corporal punishment in dealing with criminals, according to the National Institute of Justice. More than a century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that any corporal punishment that (like Singapore's) amounted to "torture" was forbidden by the Eighth Amendment's ban of "cruel and unusual punishment."

Unfortunately for young Mr. Fay, the Bill of Rights does not apply in Singapore. Nor, realistically speaking, could we expect it to. If a citizen of a country that has abolished capital punishment asked to be spared the death sentence in an American state solely because of the law of his land, would the president or a governor grant clemency? We doubt it.

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