The Individual, Elevated

June 4, 2015

I was driving up to Phoenix—work, not pleasure—on Wednesday afternoon, listening to NPR. Hearing ‘Worst-of-the-worst’ Taliban leader may be set free on PRI’s The World crystallized some thinking for me and provided the theme for this piece.

The Taliban leaders who may be set free were responsible for an Afghan uprising in the earlier 2000s, in which CIA operative Mike Spann died. (His was the first American death in the Afghan war.) In the story Charlie Sennott reports on conversations with Johnny Spann, Mike Spann’s father. Mr. Spann is furious about the Obama Administration not consulting him about the possible release. Mr. Sennott closes his story by noting that “at a minimum [Johnny Spann] wants an explanation, and I think he deserves one.”

I can only imagine how Mr. Spann feels, and Mr. Sennott is a first-rate journalist. But, how and when did we get to a place in which Mr. Spann deserves an explanation? (I assume Mr. Spann opposes freedom for his son’s killers—they’re under something akin to house arrest in Qatar—and really wants more than an explanation.)

In 1972, in Linda R.S. v. Richard D., the U.S. Supreme Court decided Linda R.S. lacked standing to complain about a District Attorney refusing to prosecute the father of her child for failure to pay child support because she and the father had never married. The state is a party to a criminal proceeding, not the victim of the crime, the Court correctly held.

The Linda R.S. case gets some credit for the development of the modern victims’ rights movement. I suspect that reactions to Gideon v. Wainwright (right to counsel in criminal cases), Miranda v. Arizona (right to warnings about Constitutional rights), and other cases focused on defendants’ rights also played a major role.

Regardless, by the early 1980s we had a victims’ rights constituency. (For some history read History of Victims’ Rights from the National Crime Victim Law Institute.) Within the narrow window of criminal cases many states adopted a set of rights for victims, including the right to information, the right to be present, due process rights, and the right to privacy. In short, what were two-party proceedings—state v. defendant, charged with a crime—include, now, an additional player.

I have issues with the victims’ rights concept. Harmed parties cannot be ignored, but we the people through our government are acting against a defendant who is charged with committing a crime. In many cases—not all, but many—the victim gets so much control over the process that, effectively, it’s a two-party process again, albeit one in which the state acts on behalf of the victim, and not on behalf of all of us.

Against this backdrop I think three related themes help explain where we are. First, over time we have elevated the individual. My psycho-sociological chops are insufficient to allow for a scholarly rationale, but I do think capitalism, marching forward, creates a need for individuals to stand apart from the madding crowd.

Second, we lost faith in our institutions decades ago. In the 70s families fell apart, Agnew and Nixon resigned, the CIA was exposed, Iran took 52 Americans and held them for 52 days, we tied a rescue and our helicopters were not up for Iranian deserts, etc. These events followed three assassinations—Kennedy, King, and Kennedy—and a civil rights movement which took others, along with a war and the events which led up to those resignations.

Third, the media focuses heavily on anecdotal, individual stories. With the exception of some high-brow publications—the ones you see here on Wednesdays—the mainstream media focuses almost of its cameras, microphones—and the rare pen—on human interest stories, featuring people aggrieved or suffering. The stories are easy and people like them, and in a ratings-based world, why should we expect better?

We talk with some frequency about the Greatest Generation. For sure, we live in different times, but can anyone imagine the parents of a soldier in World War II wanting from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt an explanation for their son’s death?

I know I have ramble a bit here, and my lack of certainty about my theme should be evident. Nevertheless, I worry that elevating the individual contributes to societal distress. John Donne told us “no man is an island” almost 400 years ago. Renaissance poetry is hardly part of our vocabulary in 2015, but we might be better off if it was.

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