Violent Victims

Posted: Dec 21, 2002 12:00 AM
Here are the facts: On May 13, 2002, Dontee D. Stokes three times shot a priest who had molested him eight years previously. On Monday, a Baltimore jury of 11 women and one man acquitted Stokes of attempted murder and assault.

The case of the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell is testimony to the horrible failure of Catholic leadership (of which I have been as critical as any public commentator) and the need for a stricter sexual abuse policy, not to mention better screening and formation of candidates for the priesthood. It was only in 1998, after Blackwell confessed to sexual involvement with a second teenage boy, that he was removed from the ministry.

Still, at the time of the shooting, Blackwell had been removed. Stokes was not acting to protect other victims. He was acting to express his inner turmoil, anger, rage, sense of violation and loss. He accosted Blackwell, and Blackwell refused to talk. So Stokes pulled out a gun and shot the priest.

"This was not an intentional act of violence," Stokes (who pled insanity) told The Washington Post after his acquittal. "This was an act of violence done to me." Oh, really?

Many commentators have complained about the sanctification of victimhood in modern culture, but here is a new development: the self-sanctification of violent perpetrators.

Its first and most extreme manifestation is the outpouring of public sympathy in certain quarters for Palestinian suicide-killers. I am not critiquing the relative merits of Palestinian and Israeli claims for sympathy (that is another column), but pointing out what for the West is the development of an entirely new socio-moral phenomenon: When Gandhi was asked, contemptuously, if there was no cause for which he was willing to die, he famously responded. "Die? Yes, certainly. But there is no cause for which I am willing to kill."

Today, men and women who commit violence attempt (at least somewhat successfully) to retain the profound involuntary respect previously accorded to those who demonstrate willingness to suffer for a good cause. The emotions associated with a proud tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience are somehow being appropriated for a very different set of principles. This seems to be worth noting.

Stokes, for example, has declared that his acquittal was a message from God and on behalf of victims of sexual abuse. "I'm ecstatic," Stokes said, speaking about the acquittal. "Maybe it will send a message. People do care about the victims."

It was a message, all right, and it is worth teasing out what Stokes, his lawyer and the jury were collectively saying: A victim can remain a sanctified object of public sympathy even if he guns down a man. He can speak for other victims and send moral messages to the larger society. He is not responsible for his actions, even actions taking place after almost a decade of reflection. In Baltimore, it is open season on priests, at least priests who have sex with teenagers, at least if they are teenage boys.

The repugnance toward Catholicism is obvious, but the submerged anti-homosexual message should not be overlooked. For thousands of years in traditional masculine sexual culture, to have submitted to homosexual acts (to be penetrated rather than penetrator) is to be unmanned. The rage aroused has the same deep sources as the violent impulses that drive some men to get even with wives who betray them sexually.

Yet as bad as we still think adultery is, we no longer sanction the violent sexual impulses of betrayed men. Don't get me wrong: Blackwell should be disgraced, defrocked and imprisoned.

But beware of what it means when a jury starts handing out 007 licenses in the name of sympathy for the victims.