Top 10 reasons to oppose caning: The Bill of Rights

April 12, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

The first thing they teach you in column-writing school is to avoid stating the obvious.

As an example, unless it's a really, really, really slow news day, you resist the temptation to bang out pieces suggesting that motherhood is good or that spring inevitably follows winter.

I thought the Singapore caning story fell into that category.

The first paragraph says: Caning is bad.

Second paragraph: There is no second paragraph.

But then I'm listening to talk radio, something else I try to avoid because, if you're not careful, you could be assaulted by Rush Limbaugh, the benighted voice of right-wing politics and the Florida citrus industry. Like many of you, I now eat only California oranges. Yes, a stupid, futile gesture -- but, hey, stupid and futile gestures are the essence of my life.

Anyway, I'm listening, and I nearly drive off the road.

To my surprise, caller after caller maintains that caning is not bad. In fact, I'm hearing, it is good. It is great. It would teach that kid a lesson, you betcha.

The kid, as you must have heard, is an 18-year-old American who apparently had much too much time on his hands. He went on a 10-day rampage -- is rampage strong enough? -- in which he spray-painted a bunch of cars.

He also broke off an antenna. And I think he may have crossed against the light.

OK, this is not a good thing. This deserves punishment. This deserves reparations and community service and probation.

In Singapore, the punishment was a little tougher, including four months in jail. That's hard, but the kid is 18 and he's old enough to know better.

But then, in addition to jail time, there's the caning. Let me explain the caning, just in case you've got it confused with something the nuns used to do with a ruler.

The kid was sentenced to receive six blows. The guy who would do the caning is a martial arts expert. He uses a rattan cane designed for the purpose of opening the skin. There is a doctor on hand. He is not there to necessarily minister to the man on the wrong end of the cane. No, his job is to keep the victim conscious. You see, the caning usually results in shock. If the six blows aren't all felt, then what's the point?

This, you must understand, is torture, plain and simple. Why not just rig up electrodes attached to some particularly tender spot -- use your imagination -- and turn on the juice? Caning is pretty much the same, except not as high tech.

Here was my second surprise. The talk-show host did explain the process in painful detail. And, still, many callers insisted the punishment fit the crime.

We know why, I guess. There are at least a couple of reasons. One is obvious. We're sick to death of crime and the heavily armed predators running loose on our streets. Throwing them in jail doesn't seem to help. Maybe caning would do the job.

The other reason is directly related. In our violent society, we defend to the death the rights of parents to beat -- OK, you use spank; please, tell me the difference -- our children. You'd be surprised how many of the heavily armed predators were beaten as children. We have the idea that beating them makes them compliant.

In Singapore, they defend the canings as their business and none of our own. Besides, they look at our violent society and wonder who we are to possibly judge them.

That's a good question.

Here's what we are: We're a country with a Bill of Rights. You want to have a serious impact on crime in America? Just get rid of those 10 pesky amendments to the constitution.

Get rid of cruel and unusual.

Allow house-to-house searches.

Limit freedom of speech.

Suspend the right to an attorney.

Forget about speedy trials.

We could torture our prisoners, as other countries routinely do. Instead of simply locking them in cells, we could devise an entire range of punishments, from sleep deprivation to piping in Michael Bolton music.

We could lobotomize and castrate and stick bamboo shoots under fingernails. We could have Hannibal Lecter as attorney general.

Instead, we opt for our messy system of trying to balance rights with justice. It's not easy. Caning is easy. It just isn't American.

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