National Post

Page URL:

Saturday, November 20, 1999

No forgiving those who feel no remorse
Christie Blatchford
National Post

A few nights ago, I attended a dinner at which the newest member of the Supreme Court of Canada, Madame Justice Louise Arbour, gave a speech.

It was a zinger, and the lady got the standing ovation she fully deserved.

But before she spoke, several of the journalists being honoured by the host Canadian Journalists for Free Expression organization also came to the microphone and said a few words. Two of these speeches, from journalists Mark Chavunduke and Raymond Choto of Zimbabwe, I found particularly moving and inspiring, and had yearned to rise for them, too. No one else appeared to share my view, though, and I kept looking about the room, hoping to see someone if not standing, then at least clearly itching to do so, as I was.

I remained seated, much to my shame, which grew rapidly enough that by the time, after Judge Arbour's address, I felt again the same longing, this when the son of slain Indo-Canadian Times editor Tara Singh Hayer came to the stage to hear that the awards were being renamed in Mr. Hayer's name, I yielded to it, and got to my feet -- the rest of my tablemates following, and a handful of others in the ballroom.

A day or so after the dinner, I told the story to Dr. Fred Mathews, a psychologist in Toronto who actually speaks in plain English and who has dealt, virtually every day of his working life for the past 15 years, with troubled kids or kids in trouble.

I had called him looking for an explanation of group behaviour, particularly as it related to the beating death, last weekend, of a 15-year-old local boy named Dmitri Baranovski, who had been attacked by a pack of older youths and kicked and punched to death.

Dr. Mathews had just finished saying how we all rely on our fellows for social cues -- hints on what is acceptable behaviour in the moment and what is not -- when I remembered my own recent experience and recounted it. What was interesting was deconstructing why I had been unable to do what I believed was right, how influenced I had been by the actions of others (or in my case, the non-actions), and how I had essentially lacked the courage of my convictions even in a benign milieu which was fairly comfortable for me.

Imagine, he said, how much stronger that pull to conform would have been if you had been in what social psychologists call "an anomalous situation," an unusual one, where all the normal rules don't apply; if you were a teenager; if it had been dark; if you had been anonymous or if you had also been drinking or using drugs.

This is the lethal mix of ingredients the good doctor guesses were likely at work the night Dmitri was killed.

Does it justify what those youths did? Not a chance. Should it mitigate whatever punishment they ought to get? Nope. Because this sort of dynamic has been evident forever in mankind, does it mean there is nothing off about some of the young people of today? It does not.

In the wake of Dmitri's murder -- and other, equally vicious and in a couple of cases fatal beatings that have occurred across Canada in recent years -- it seems pretty clear there may well be a whole new breed of youngster out there: arguably sociopathic; lacking in remorse; oblivious to consequence, and scarily flat, almost devoid of emotion.

I've seen them myself, at the criminal trial of one of the accused in Reena's murder, at Columbine high school in Colorado. One of my colleagues in Toronto, a photographer at The Toronto Sun, ran into a little of this at Dmitri's school last week, where he was taking a picture of some teenagers crying and found himself approached by a grinning girl who cheerfully asked, "If I cry, will you take my picture too?" It doesn't take a psychologist to know there's something wrong in that reaction.

But most young people aren't like this, and many, even those already in serious trouble, may still be salvageable. Sociopaths and psychopaths excepted, the one thing my experience in the courts tells me is that bad kids, bad people, aren't born, but made.

The methods may vary -- from parenting that is overtly abusive or sadistic across a dreary spectrum to the other end, where mothers and fathers are merely neglectful or disinterested. Their children are damaged, infinitely more vulnerable to the call of the wild that operates in the group, but it is still possible, though as the days go by it appears less and less likely, that some of those who were involved in the attack on Dmitri, or who stood by while it happened, might yet find a twinge of conscience propelling them to the nearest police station.

Appreciating the dynamics, the things that may predispose a young person to remaining silent or participating in such wickedness, might come too late for those who put the boots to that slender boy that night. But the knowledge is surely useful, if only for the purposes of self-examination.

Understanding why one behaves badly, or criminally, doesn't mean much. It is not exculpating. It provides neither rationale for leniency by society nor opportunity for forgiveness by the self. It doesn't offer comfort. But it is better than nothing, and there may be some light inherent in the exercise.

When I didn't have the balls to get to my feet for the journalists from Zimbabwe who had been tortured and imprisoned, I was at least smart enough to feel instantly ashamed of myself. But when I listened to Fred Mathews, and figured out why I hadn't done so (you could call it fear of the sound of one hand clapping), all I felt was, well, worse, which is precisely how I should have felt. And that cannot be a bad thing, I think.

Copyright Southam Inc.