The Plight of the Victim

The Invisible Victim

by Robert Reiff
Basic Books, 219 pp., $11.95

The charge that we coddle criminals and neglect victims is often heard as a cry from the hysterical right but it embodies a substantial, if distorted, truth. Criminals do get a lot more attention than their victims for many reasons. First, victims frighten us. Like someone struck by cancer or by an automobile, the person who suffers criminal violence reminds others disturbingly of the inscrutable nature of fate’s game plan. It was surely not fear of contagion alone that caused people to shun lepers but also the psychic difficulty of viewing such vivid evidence of life’s random cruelty.

Crime victims also embarrass us in a number of ways. They carry the marks of the aggression and rage we sense in others and within ourselves, the release of which is both frightening and shameful. They mutely reproach us for our good fortune and make challenging claims on our store of compassion and charity that we feel guilty about meeting inadequately. Like Philoctetes, the victim himself may be embarrassed by his wound. Some people are said to be ashamed to admit that they have cancer and this is in part because they sense and share the uneasiness that public acknowledgment of that feared disease arouses. In the same way the courts have always held it to be defamatory to say untruly that a woman has been raped, even though this would not be her fault and should not cause a right-thinking person to think less of her.

When victims are not frightening or embarrassing us they may bore us with their steady, drab presence. The supply of victims (whether from crime, illness, or accident) has always been plentiful and over time we have accommodated to them as to the weather. Indeed, we always find ways to make more victims. As modern medicine has made much illness less terrifying, we are replacing one scourge with another by encouraging a terrible rate of traffic accidents. But perhaps victims can be tolerated only by not taking them seriously. The contemplation of serious illness or accident or being the victim of a violent crime remains so distressing that we strive to regard them as hideous misfortunes which with luck won’t happen to us. Dangers like inflation or economic depression threaten us in a more bearable way and so are the comfortable subjects of constant public concern.

Victims are frightening but not interesting while criminals are frightening and fascinating. Criminals have let loose the aggression that we have tamed, so with some buried faculty we may envy them. And criminals present such a stimulating cluster of moral and social problems. What is guilt? When are defendants properly held responsible and what kinds of excuses should we recognize? Can a theory of retribution be defended morally? Are conventional modes of deterrence effective? Can we reform people? These are lovely questions for intellectuals and inescapable ones for administrators and politicians because, after all, the criminal not the victim is the problem. Except in refined theories of victimology, victims…

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