No Punishment for the Crime

A psychiatrist once told me, “When people do something wrong, you’ve got to tell them.”  She meant it not as a moral point, but a psychological one.  If people don’t hear somebody else say, “That’s wrong,” an essential element of psychological advancement is missing.  

The principle bears upon a case in Virginia reported today by Inside Higher Ed.  A student at University of Virginia law school, Johnathan Perkins, alleged last month that while walking home from a bar review session, UVA cops pulled him aside, interrogated him, taunted him, frisked him, then followed him home.  He made his claims in a letter to the student newspaper, adding notes about his humiliation and his hopes that “sharing this experience will provide this community with some much needed awareness of the lives that many of their black classmates are forced to lead.”

Police responded to the letter by conducting an investigation, then issuing an announcement last Friday that, according to Inside Higher Ed, “Perkins had made up the story.”  In a written statement, Perkins admitted, “I wrote the article to bring attention to the topic of police misconduct.”

That’s not all.  Police have decided not to press any charges.  The chief states, “Pressing charges in this case might inhibit another individual who experiences real police misconduct from coming forward with a complaint.”

Exactly how pressing charges against a fabricator will discourage genuine victims from coming forward is not explained.  No doubt, however, many observers at UVA can connect two other elements: telling lies and getting away with it is official policy at the school, as long as certain racial variables are in play.  Indeed, police chief Gibson seems to have taken Perkins’ aims to heart: “I want to send the message just how seriously we take such charges and that we will always investigate them with care and diligence.”  (We haven't heard from other police officers about their opinion.)

The truth, then, doesn’t much matter.  I heard the same thing 20 years ago, just after I started working at Emory University.  A black student fabricated severe evidence of racial harassment, leading to lots of controversy and unease and racial-awareness advocacy.  Soon after, though, separate investigations by county police, Emory police, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation all concluded that “the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggested that she had staged the episode herself,” as the New York Times reported. 

Afterwards, however, the head of the Atlanta NAACP said this to the Times:

''It doesn't matter to me whether she did it or not because of all the pressure these black students are under at these predominantly white schools. If this will highlight it, if it will bring it to the attention of the public, I have no problem with that.''

So, the truth doesn't matter as long as the problem receives publicity. 

The moral implications of that position are obvious, as are its social impact.  But consider the psychological effect.  What does the individual at the center of such controversies come to believe?  I lied, elaborately  and dramatically.  I got caught, but instead of being punished, I walked away.  Lots of people were angry and judgmental, yes, but not the ones in power.  In fact, they acted exactly as I wanted them to act from the start.

What is the subsequent world view of the fabricator?


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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