Exploring the Kyriarchy: 175 years

Despite all of the problems with the death penalty in the United States - including the cost, the ability to access the drugs used, and the possibility of executing the innocent, still nearly two thirds of the country support it. The death penalty also has a race problem. Black men are disproportionately sentenced to death, especially when the victim is white. But the United States loves punishment. We love it so much, it’s difficult to think of another way to approach crime, especially violent crime. 

While the death penalty was not on the table in this case, after Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct with children, he was sentenced this month to 40 to 175 years in prison. During sentencing the judge suggested that if our constitution allowed for cruel and unusual punishment, she would allow others to treat him as he treated his victims.

The eighth amendment to the constitution of the United States reads as follows: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” We decided as a nation that torture, even of criminals, was intolerable. Our identity as a just nation with just laws allows us the moral authority to identify and condemn injustice in the world. We decided to rise above the biblical eye-for-an-eye style of punishment, and to hold ourselves to higher standards. Consistency of this value requires that it be applied to all people, no matter their race, gender, or crime. 

The judge’s statement is a very American perspective, though. When we make jokes about prison rape, we signify our tacit approval for it. A majority of Americans support torture for accused foreign terrorists, even electing a president who advocated such torture. And we continue to elect so-called “tough on crime” officials. 

However, the judge crossed a line, particularly in advocating an eye-for-an-eye punishment. It is irresponsible for the judge's position; her duty is to the constitution, not the bible. And it is irresponsible socially. If we, as a society, allow ourselves to see anyone as less than human, we sanction the right for anyone else. That includes someone who might see a black man as a threat, an immigrant as illegal, or an LGBTQ person as immoral, instead of as people with rights to life. 

While the urge to enact severe punishment may be understandable, state-sanctioned violence is still violence. And state-sanctioned violence is violence done in our name.

Nassar shouldn’t face the death penalty, or be raped or molested in prison. So without cruel and unusual punishment what does justice look like? First, he must be removed from a position of authority and access to children; this sentence does that. Also, we must remove everyone who enabled him from their positions of authority. But most importantly, we have to dismantle the system that allowed his abuse. 

According to an investigative report the university that employed Nassar has a long history of inaction regarding reports of sexual assault, abuse, and domestic violence. The report shows that the athletic department tried to control information about complaints from being released and discouraged accusers from working outside the athletic department. Beyond the university, others participated in a system of denial of abuse, including within USA Gymnastics, the US Olympic Committee, private facilities, and law enforcement. Such inaction and control of information serves to perpetuate a system of abuse and injustice. All those who enable this system must be held accountable and removed from the power to do so.

While imprisoning Nassar and removing his enablers are a part of justice in this one case, the most important aspect of enacting justice is dismantling the system that allows abusers like Nassar to commit their crimes. The system is not entirely institutional like schools and athletic organizations; this system is often built on social norms. We must start by trusting accusers, in this case, children. We must raise children with a sense of bodily autonomy. Each body belongs only to the person walking in that body. Children shouldn’t be forced to hug or kiss even a relative who simply asks for a kiss on the cheek. They should be discouraged from engaging in physical contact for the approval of another. Children should be taught consent in everything - you’re not allowed to touch another person without their permission. We must empower children to express their boundaries, and to recognize and stop harassment.

When these values are placed at the forefront, when they are deemed important to everyone, children are empowered to report abuse. When we take accusations seriously, children are empowered to seek justice. When everyone in society is a victim advocate, and when children know it, we eliminate the power of the abuser. 

But America loves punishment, especially when the victims are children or white women. And especially when we find it easy to dehumanize the perpetrators of violence by likening them to animals or monsters. But the greatest injustice is not disallowing torture. It is refusing to dismantle systems that perpetuate violence and allow more to be victimized. The greatest injustice is that we won’t do that.