WASHINGTON -- Like bookends on both coasts, two cases involving allegedly exploited children grip the nation. Each tests America's ability to distinguish "crazy" from common sense.
On the West Coast there is Michael Jackson, 45, the reclusive superstar song-and-dance man who, despite his advancing years, still seems mystified that anyone frowns on his slumber parties for underage boys.
On the East Coast, there is Lee Boyd Malvo, now 18, accused trigger man in last year's Washington-area sniper murders where 10 people died. His mentor-guardian, John Allen Muhammad, who Mr. Malvo apparently called "Dad" and "father," was found guilty by a jury that also recommended his execution.
It is possible, of course, that Michael Jackson is innocent of child molestation charges, despite the "yuck" factor his behavior may generate within some of us. But what we know about his behavior may be enough to cause his social ostracism, whether he is found guilty or not.
That's because our society frowns upon those who appear to have stepped over a line that still has distinct meaning: the sexual exploitation of children.
Ah, yes, as they say in Hollywood, live by publicity, die by publicity.
Mr. Malvo, by contrast, confessed on tape to stepping over another line: mass murder. "I intended to kill them all," he said, of his victims. Although he was 17 at the time of the murders, he is being prosecuted as an adult and, like Mr. Muhammad, could face the death penalty.
And it is there that we find a paradox in the way our society regards choices and children. Mr. Jackson is being prosecuted and, in the media, persecuted because of our society's quite-proper impulse to protect children from exploitation. We don't give kids the choice to be exploited. They have to wait for that until they reach the age of consent, the age at which the state believes they are old enough to be held responsible for their own choices.
We know, after all, that young people are very impressionable. We know they want desperately to please their elders and role models. We know they often do things on impulse or otherwise that they later will regret for the rest of their lives.
Long before the United States was born, English common law held that no one should be executed whose mental state did not allow him to understand the severity of his own crimes. More than a technicality, this consideration draws the moral line that separates our system of justice from barbarism.
Yet, when it comes to holding underage youths accountable for serious crimes, a lot of us don't just cross that line, we trample all over it.
The public's desire to prosecute more and more teens as adults surged in the mid-1990s, fueled by a media frenzy over youth crime, even as actual teen violence declined.
Remember Lionel Tate? The Florida kid from Broward County was 12 years old when his 6-year-old playmate died of injuries he inflicted on her while acting out moves he had seen on a TV wrestling show. Two years ago, at age 14, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole under the state's mandatory sentencing laws. At least he wasn't executed.
As the head of a household that was terrorized along with millions of others by the Washington-area sniper crisis for three long weeks, rest assured that I am not overlooking the victims in Mr. Malvo's case.
If he is found guilty it is fair and just that he should spend the rest of his life in prison. But it would be committing yet another immoral act, in my view, to execute a kid like him before he has had an opportunity to appreciate the true horrors of his crimes. A life sentence would give adequate time.
As for Michael Jackson, he may still beat the current charges. If so, he should strongly consider a change in his lifestyle, like growing up.
He should take to heart the words of his song in which he sings about "looking at the man in the mirror" and "asking him to change his ways."
Make that change, Michael.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Thursdays in The Sun.