There's an old story I've heard retold many times. The Christmas oranges. Does everyone know it? An orphanage, Christmas, unjust mistress. Every Christmas the poor orphans get one precious orange. It's what they look forward to most, and spend all Christmas day smelling it, holding it, savoring and anticipating sometimes for days before peeling and at last eating it. One Christmas, an orphan is denied his orange as punishment for a mild infraction (in some tellings, he sneaks out of bed at night to peek at the Christmas tree). Christmas morning, since he didn't get an orange, the other orphans peel their orange early instead of savoring it and each give him one slice of their orange. It's a sweet story of mercy, kindness, and empathy.
Only it often falls a little flat for me because of the mild infraction part. What if the orphan had done something bolder? Worse? The story would be even more powerful for me if the other children still had empathy. Mercy.
If even in stories we don't allow characters to really mess up and yet love them anyway, are we capable in life?
I've always rankled at the term "Innocent victim." What does it actually mean? As if the only victims that count are those who are innocent of any wrong doing. Which would include babies and just about no one else, I think. I've heard this term a lot lately. And what I hear disturbs me.
When a police officer shot Michael Brown, focus was put on his shoplifting. The New York Times wrote that he was "no angel." When Eric Garner was choked to death, focus was put on his previous crime of selling untaxed cigarettes. When Tamir Rice was shot (a 12 year old boy, alone at a park with a toy gun, no one in immediate danger if the gun had been real, the police shooting and killing him within 2 seconds of arriving), the local media seemed to flail a bit. Aren't all children innocent? So instead they reported on the past crimes of his parents, as if that had anything to do with why police shot him that day in the park.
Rape victims still are blamed for what they wore, if they'd been drinking, if they'd gone with someone they didn't know well, if they'd gone with someone they did know and so should have known better, if they were in the "wrong" side of town, if they were sex workers, if they lied about any part of it to the police, if they were overly flirtatious, examining their decisions, finding fault, finding reasons to prove that they aren't "innocent" victims.
If the law only protects those who are innocent, we are all doomed.
We want to believe that when horrible things happen to people, that they somehow deserved it. They weren't completely innocent, so it's okay in a way. That makes us feel safer. We can believe that we are innocent, so those things can't happen to us.
But there are no innocent victims. We all of us make mistakes. And in this country, we don't believe in death as punishment for selling loose cigarettes. We don't believe in rape as punishment for getting drunk.
I know there is so much to debate in the things I'm bringing up. I do not want to get into here the vast problems in our legal system. And this is not a general condemnation of our police force. Remember who ran into the burning buildings on 9/11. The purpose of this post is to focus on this one simple idea. There are no innocent victims. I hope we stop trying to make anyone live up to that impossible standard. I hope we value all human life, even those who have made mistakes.