The Need for Fences

May 11, 1994|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON — Now that politicians, self-styled human-rights groups and sundry commentators have had their say on the caning of Michael Fay by Singapore authorities, it might interest some to hear what one self-described ''career criminal'' thinks.

Ronald Young writes from the Michigan state prison in Jackson. He says he has been incarcerated a total of 30 years for 11 felony convictions, but that he only committed one of those crimes in Kansas. His reason for this provides insight into why swift and sure punishment helps deter crime.

''In the mid '50s,'' writes Young, ''I received a 5-to-15-year sentence in Kansas. I did 3 1/2 years of the hardest years of my life. I don't know how hard the time is now, but you can be sure I will never go back to Kansas to find out. . . . The answer to the crime problem is simple: heaven or hell. Prison should be hell and release heaven.''

Which brings us to the alleged ''torture'' and ''inhumanity'' and violation of human rights conducted by the government of Singapore. While Michael Fay was being flogged and the Singapore government received an international tongue-lashing, Singapore's senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew, had some sound advice for Americans and the way we respond to crime and criminals.

Mr. Lee told Time magazine: ''We don't have the concept of 'victim of society' either in the Chinese, Malay or Tamil language. This concept has led to a situation where if you kill your mother and father, because you were victims, you are not guilty. If you cut off your husband's penis, it's OK. But it is not OK. If we allow it to be OK, we'll have chaos. Maybe we are old-fashioned, maybe we are reactionary, but the place works.''

Mr. Lee believes America's problems are so profound and deep that no president can change things: ''It will have to start in the home. You must have certain values respected. The schools can only supplement what the home does. . . . The government can set the parameters, but the thrust must come from the family.''

When the writer of Proverbs noted that sparing the rod spoils the child, he was telling us something fundamental about human nature which, because of the widespread secular belief in human perfectibility, we have forgotten.

If humans were basically good and could always be relied upon to do right, given the proper education and incentives, we would not need punishment or its threat to control people who are not under the control of an inner compass.

Neither would we need laws -- only behavior-modification centers designed to readjust out-of-tune attitudes.

Americans have confused freedom with license. We seem to think that human rights can be had without human responsibility. Because so many people no longer believe that man needs redemption from an inner, flawed condition, virtually all punishment is seen as cruel and unusual. After all, if we are all victims, and criminals the more so, punishment becomes

vindictive and demonstrates lack of understanding.

But if people are not basically good -- if they do bad things to others and to themselves when left to follow the downward spiral of human greed and selfishness -- then they must be harnessed either from within by a power greater than themselves, or from without by the power of the state.

Lee Kuan Yew reminds us of that. It is too bad someone from another country must recall what was once taken for granted as ''self-evident'' truth by those Americans who preceded us.

In his 1945 notebook, John F. Kennedy attributed this remark to G.K. Chesterton: ''Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.''

Punishment and the belief that one is responsible for one's own actions were fences that protected the law-abiding from the lawless. We took down that fence without realizing why it was erected and now we have chaos in our streets and are afraid to go out at night.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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