Why cane the guy? National frustration needs an outlet

April 19, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

If you want some insight into why so many Americans think it's OK for Singapore to cane Michael Fay, go to a high school baseball game in Simi Valley, Calif.

It's out of the way, but you might enjoy the trip.

Simi Valley is a mostly middle-class suburb outside Los Angeles. It's a place like many other places. Sure, there was a bit of unwelcome notoriety when a jury of 12 of its citizens was somehow unable to discern that Rodney King had been viciously beaten by a mob of L.A. cops.

But, basically, Simi Valley is a typical slice of America. Call it Iowa with beach weather.

High school baseball is very big there. You don't get any more American than that. Lots of folks, especially big-league scouts, attend the games. Like most of Southern California, Simi Valley is fertile ground for prospective major leaguers.

But if baseball is taken seriously there, it is still baseball. In football, you try to crush the other guy. In basketball, you try to make him look stupid, and then you tell him how stupid he did look.

Baseball is different. It's the slow-paced, semi-civilized game of our ancestors.

And, for years, for what seems like forever, from little league to high school, the contestants take the field at game's end to shake hands.

It's a small thing. It doesn't mean much. It's a gentle nod, or high five, toward a belief in sportsmanship, which is supposed to be something we value or, at the least, take for granted.

But now the hand-shaking is over.

That's right. In Simi Valley, by a vote of high school principals, athletes are no longer permitted to shake hands with the opposition.

Because . . . shaking hands has become too dangerous. Some field of dreams, huh?

This is where we've gotten. I don't know how, exactly. And I'm still trying to figure out what it means. But this shaking of hands, this small gesture, has apparently led to violence. And, so, it was outlawed.

Yes, Arafat and Rabin can manage to puts years of enmity aside and squeeze flesh, but not kids playing ball on a sunny afternoon in a place called America.

Here's what caused the problems. Kids spit on their hands before shaking. You could see where this would cause unhappy feelings. Or, instead of shaking, they punch one another. Fights have broken out.

What in the name of Miss Manners has happened to us?

The problem has been attributed to a couple of things, mostly the high stakes involved. Supposedly, the pressure of high school ball has become too much for the participants. Some point to the bad example often set by big leaguers themselves.

But I think there's something else at work.

The principals had other options besides banning handshakes. They had the option of saying they'd punish the troublemakers. They could have kicked them off the team.

They could have taken a stand. Instead, they basically said that kids can't be expected to be civil to one another. Or, by extension, to the rest of us.

Civility is the casualty. Civility is being lost wherever you look. It's lost every time a car gets stolen. It's lost when people are afraid to walk through their own neighborhoods.

Which brings us back to Michael Fay.

He stands convicted of no terrible crime. He didn't kill anybody. He didn't make off with public funds.

He spray-painted cars in Singapore, where cars don't get stolen or spray-painted without serious consequences.

He was -- if he was actually guilty, and there is some doubt -- a vandal in a place that doesn't tolerate vandalism.

What Singapore does is take a rather firm stand. It puts first-time offenders in jail. It then canes (read: tortures) them.

I don't think you can call caning civil either. It's not what we do in America. But in America, Fay would get no jail time. He would barely be noticed. The kid who steals your car expects no serious consequences. He knows we have no space in our crowded penal system for pikers like him.

We're too busy stuffing dangerous criminals in prison and then having to let them go too soon because no matter how many prisons we build, we can't seem to match supply with demand.

And so, some people (not all, or even most, of us) want Fay caned for the sins of those who have made our lives so difficult and seem to get no punishment at all. They want someone, finally, to pay.

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