by Theodore Dalrymple
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden
Forgiveness is in the gift of the wronged, but pardon is in the gift of us all. What we consider pardonable and unpardonable reveals our scale of values.
Two recent cases from the world of sport demonstrate, however, that making relative moral judgments can be complex.
In the first case, a football coach, Jon Gruden, pre-emptively resigned after e-mails, supposedly private but written on a company e-mail account, that contained racial and other slurs, were made public—or made almost public, since most of the slurs have been described in the press euphemistically rather than reproduced verbatim.
In the second case, the executive of a sports equipment company, Larry Miller, has revealed that, aged 16, he committed murder. This was unknown throughout most of his career, during which he reached the top of the tree.
Whereas Gruden has been widely, almost unanimously, condemned, Miller has drawn almost equally widespread praise.
Does the contrast between the reactions to the two cases not reveal a strange or even perverted scale of values, in which words not intended for public consumption call forth more severe punishment, or at least more social and economic ostracism, than the crime of murder?
Let us examine the difference a little further. Gruden was a fully-grown and mature adult who owed a duty to his employers not to damage their reputation by using the kind of language that (apparently) he did use. He seems to have written as he might have spoken if he had been drinking with pals in a low dive. At the very least, then, he was foolish to the point of stupidity.
An apology and a promise not to behave in this way again would surely have been enough, combined perhaps with a reduction in his salary, with the difference being donated to a worthy charity.
But his apology—which struck me as not entirely sincere or credible—was not deemed enough in these vengeful times. It is to be hoped that, four years into a contract at $10 million a year, he has put enough by not to suffer real economic hardship as a result of his professional death.
The case of Miller raises interesting penological questions. I am a hard-liner on crime, and if he had been 26 rather than 16 at the time of his offense I should have advocated incarceration for life.
But age makes a difference, and at 16 a person is not fully formed; if my memory of being 16 is to be trusted, such a person is inclined to do things that later might cause him shame.
It is true that Miller knew right from wrong even at the time and that he did not come from the kind of unfavorable background that is often put forward in mitigation; on his own account he chose a bad way of life at the time because he found it attractive.
But it would seem to me unduly harsh to have punished a 16-year-old in the same way as someone ten years older.
At any rate, the manner in which he was treated penologically appears to have been, from the practical point of view, a great success. He used his time in prison to obtain an accountancy degree, and since his release his conduct has been exemplary, leading to a highly successful career.
In the general encomia to him following his revelation of his past crime (56 years ago), the victim seems to have been forgotten; nevertheless, it would be churlish not to praise Miller for his effort, the best that he could make in his circumstances.
There is a dangerous tendency, however, to romanticize reformed criminals à la Dostoyevsky, who thought that the greater the sinner, the greater the saint.
It is surely possible, and better, to be a good person without having first killed; it is not necessary or advisable to overpraise those who have lived decent lives after first having committed a heinous act.
We may surmise that if Miller had not been sentenced to a long term in prison he might well have continued his disordered or thuggish existence. Prison, and what led to it, was in a sense the making of him, and therefore the act that resulted in his imprisonment. It is well that he turned his life around, but it would have been better if it had not been necessary to do so by so terrible a means.
Throughout his post-prison career, Miller concealed his criminal record for reasons that we can surely all understand.
On the question of whether criminal records should be available to employers, I confess that I face both ways. I am in favor of giving criminals second chances (in fact, statistics suggest that most reform, or at least change, with the passage of time); on the other hand, if someone applies to me for a job, I should rather like to know that he was a convicted killer.
It would then be up to me as an individual whether I were prepared to take the risk of employing him. There is no completely satisfactory solution to this dilemma.
It is important that too generalized a penological conclusion should not be drawn from Miller’s case, though we can all rejoice at its successful outcome.
Crime is not disease, and punishment is not therapy. Thus, we cannot draw any general conclusions from the outcome, good or bad, in any individual case, or even aggregate of cases. To see why this is so, we can consider a hypothetical situation.
Suppose at the end of the war, Heinrich Himmler had not committed suicide. Suppose also that he had apologized for what he had done and expressed his deep regret for it.
Suppose again that this had been accepted and he had been released because, in the new prevailing political conditions, it was impossible that he should ever repeat his crimes. In addition, let us suppose that he had returned successfully and peacefully to his avocation as chicken farmer. Would we think that justice had been done? I do not think so, and the successful outcome of his release would not alter this.
Perhaps the most startling and important thing to emerge from these two cases was the fact that, according to the Washington Post, senior executives of the NFL “reviewed the content of more than 650,000 emails … over the past few months,” presumably to sniff out wrongful words or incorrect thoughts, just like any communist secret police.
Crime suspects in Britain used to be given the following warning before they were questioned by the police: “You do not have to say anything, but anything that you do say will be taken down in writing and may be used in evidence against you.”
These are the circumstances under which we now permanently live: everything that we write, say, or do will be recorded and may be used in evidence against you—when convenient to some authority or other. You have been warned. You are a suspect because you are a human being.