Many in U.S. for caning

April 14, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer Sun contributing writers Lisa Respers and Jane Meredith Adams provided information for this article.

Singapore's punishment for a teen-age vandal from Ohio -- six lashes with a rattan cane -- has unleashed a wave of support among Americans who are fed up with a justice system they contend coddles the criminal.

And people across the country aren't shy about letting the world know how they feel:

* "They ought to go ahead and spank him," said George Stone, the 51-year-old pharmacist at Olmos Pharmacy in San Antonio, where the milkshakes are two straws thick. "If we went ahead and did it in this country . . . I think it would serve as a great deterrent for lots of people and I suspect that the kid won't do that again."

* Thomas M. Lavin, a retired Chicago firefighter, has his own remedy for troublemakers like Michael Fay, the 18-year-old from Dayton, Ohio, who was convicted of vandalizing several dozen cars in Singapore last year.

"Give them a cat-of-nine-tails across the butt. Let them know when you do something you're going to have to pay the price," says the 73-year-old from Niles, Ill.

Ever since the government of Singapore announced that Mr. Fay would receive a lashing for the vandalism, Americans have spoken out. From the president of the United States to a leading clergyman in New Orleans, from the American Medical Association to the New York Times, caning has pricked the conscience of a country that berates other nations for human rights violations while it executes an ever-increasing number of its own young men for serious crimes.

While many voices are protesting the punishment for young Mr. Fay, a sizable number -- about 38 percent, according to a Newsweek poll -- are favoring the rod.

On the West Coast, the San Francisco Examiner received 5,133 calls in two days and 74 percent of the responses were in favor of the caning. The issue generated nearly 1,900 calls to the The Baltimore Sun's own reader response line yesterday -- the large majority again in support of the caning.

Social scientists aren't surprised by the figures. They reflect Americans' attitudes about crime and their frustration with our inability to curb it, according to interviews with criminologists, sociologists and psychologists who study the issue.

"Whenever there is a poll that has to do with misbehavior, 30-40 percent of Americans will tend to take a punitive stance . . . will think the way to deal with this is to punish children," said Dr. Irwin A. Hyman, director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives at Temple University in Philadelphia. "This ideology is driven by the political and religious right."

'15th-century practices'

When people are frustrated, they tend to shoot from the hip and "what they want to do is return to 15th- century practices," said Dr. Hyman, a professor of psychology. But what they don't understand, he said, is that caning is a form of torture.

"We don't do that in a democracy," Dr. Hyman said. "In a democracy, misbehavior is much more complex than [in] an autocracy or a dictatorship. We try to find out why kids are misbehaving."

Dr. Allen E. Liska, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Albany, attributes the support for the caning to the public's fear of crime. When people are asked if they are afraid to walk in their neighborhoods, 40 percent usually answer yes. That has been the response for the past 15 years or so, he said.

"Prior to 12 to 15 years [ago], those figures were more about 25 to 30 percent, then they jumped up to the 40s and have pretty much been there ever since," he said.

People who support the caning may be "desperate for an answer" to this country's crime problem, said David M. %o Altschuler, research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

"Unfortunately," he added, "there is very little relevance or applicability for our situation in this country."

A shift in attitudes about crime and punishment also may explain why a sizable number of Americans support the caning, said Dr. Rosemary Gartner, a sociologist at the University of Toronto. Rising crime rates suggest that punishment isn't serving as a deterrent, she said.

"Faced with the fact that the deterrent doesn't work, they are going to retributive purposes -- give them what they deserve," said Dr. Gartner.

That's certainly what Bill Cunningham, host of the 9 p.m.-to-midnight talk show at WLM-AM in Cincinnati, heard from his listeners.

'Just what he deserves'

"Many hours we've spent on this issue. The overwhelming sentiment of the American public is that this kid is getting just what he deserves," said Mr. Cunningham, the voice of "The Nation's Station." "We give these criminal scumbags everything. Satellite TV, free books, free food, free education. I think the justice system now is so soft and flabby that the founding fathers wouldn't even recognize it. . . . Singapore is the teacher and America ought to learn."

What Americans don't understand, however, is that caning is not just a couple of swift licks, said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International.

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