Compassion – even for 'monsters'

Curtis Dean Anderson's heinous crimes against children may be repugnant. But revulsion doesn't bring redemption. Compassion does.

He was convicted of kidnapping and killing a young girl. A second narrowly escaped after he sexually assaulted her. Earlier this month, and two years after he died in state prison, authorities in California concluded he was responsible for the abduction and murder of another child in 1988.

To many, he was known only as a "monster." And while there is little doubt the late Curtis Dean Anderson committed some of the most heinous crimes known to man, he was also something else.

He was human.

Given their unimaginable pain, the families and friends of Xiana Fairchild, Midsi Sanchez, and Amber Swartz-Garcia may never be able to grant Anderson such standing. The same may hold true for those whose loved ones have suffered a similar fate. But what about the rest of us? Should we give a second thought to how we describe someone who mercilessly attacked innocent children? Should we even care?

Questions like these evoke a powerful visceral response. After all, we are nothing if not fiercely protective of our offspring. And rightly so. Still, there's a reason we choose words such as "monster" or "animal" to refer to such criminals.

Dehumanizing the "other" makes it easier for us to distance ourselves. We rationalize this behavior to feel safer and more secure. Yet, from our longstanding tradition of demonizing enemies in war and tacit approval of the accompanying "collateral damage" to our brutally punitive prison system – filled with a staggering percentage of (untreated) individuals with severe mental illness – you don't have to look too far to see how this perspective plays out.

The good news is this insidious dynamic is not reflective of our true nature.

It is widely believed that children are predisposed to empathy and respond in kind to others in distress. But as we get older and experience the consequences of our human failings, fear becomes a prime motivating factor. To overcome this profound level of insecurity, we need to rekindle our innate capacity to express compassion – especially when our impulse is to express revulsion.

We don't come into this world looking for ways to harm or extinguish each other. Yet, we do sometimes make deadly choices as a result of either extreme fear or insecurity or because of an acute psychological imbalance.

Anderson was no exception. His mother's (and probably, his own) beatings at the hands of his father may have influenced his horrific actions. He may have also suffered from mental illness. This doesn't undo the fact of his crimes, and to be fair, only a handful of people faced with one or both of those challenges will turn out the way he did. But it doesn't change the fact that, like you and I, he too was once an innocent child.

In many ways, our wellbeing is predicated upon the choices we make and the priorities we set. Which compels the following questions: What kind of world might we live in if each of us nurtured our intrinsic ability to care for one another? What impact might a criminal justice system based on treatment and rehabilitation (rather than punishment) have on the millions of inmates scheduled for release?

Daunting aspirations, indeed, but well worth our effort if you consider the legacy of William Johnson, who came to my attention in an 1991 essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry.

Officer Johnson and Elijah Harris first crossed paths in 1989, when Johnson arrested the teen for causing a disturbance on school property. They met again while Harris was housed at a juvenile detention center.

During one of Mr. Johnson's visits, Harris spoke of turning his life around. Shortly thereafter, Johnson invited him into his home, first for weekend respites, and then, eventually, as his foster child. Over the next two years, Harris not only blossomed as a student, he also became a peacemaker, dedicating himself to steering his peers away from crime.

Then, in an instant, it was over, courtesy of Shawn Ragland, age 20, who knew Harris from back in the day.

At a hearing to determine the fate of the young man who shot and killed his foster child, Johnson urged the court to include a provision stipulating that Mr. Ragland be granted early release from prison – and remanded into his care – if he earned a college degree while serving his sentence. Two years later, Shawn Ragland was welcomed into the Johnson household to begin a new life.

As Johnson told a high school audience once: "It's just possible that if Shawn Ragland gets another chance in life, he'll reach back and help a brother. If I can forgive a guy who killed my son, you can forgive a guy who bumped into you."

This remarkable account illustrates our vast potential. It also demonstrates the mountain of work we have to do.

There is no quick fix for reducing violent crime. Nor can we turn back the clock to change the plight of those who have been affected. We do, however, have a template for creating a safer and more compassionate society. And it begins with our willingness to acknowledge the humanity inherent in each of us.

John Morlino is a former social worker who founded The ETHIC to promote peace, nonviolence, and compassion.

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