Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Violence and Punishment

            On the evening of January 16th, a video depicting the attack of an Asian high school student by seven other students was uploaded to Youtube. Posted as Facebook statuses, shared onto walls, twittered and texted about, it caught almost immediate attention and went viral in less than a few hours. Even after the original video was taken down, it was reloaded onto Youtube by people that had downloaded it. Chicagoan students were outraged at an attack that hit so close to home, many giving details about the familiar location and how close they were to it. The same night the video went up, various local news stations caught wind and reported on it, requesting help in identifying the attackers. The video captured attention across the nation, provoking a wide spectrum of malicious comments. Over the next few days, the attackers were identified and taken into police custody with only one suspect charged as an adult with robbery and aggravated battery. The other six were charged as juveniles, also with robbery and aggravated battery.

The days immediately following the video, names and accusations were rapidly posted onto the internet. Wild allegations led to the harassment of various people related to the attack, associated to the attackers and mistakenly associated. A UIC student, who shares the same name as the girlfriend of one of the attackers, had personal information posted online that was reposted on multiple other sites. She and her family received numerous threats and harassments despite their efforts to differentiate her from the real girlfriend. The attacker’s girlfriend had posted videos where she states “there are two sides to every story” and says the attack had been incited by a previous transgression. While she tried to explain that she wasn’t taking sides and attempting to convince people to stay more open minded, her videos received a barrage of negative votes. A combination of distasteful opinions, usage and emphasis of the word “F.O.B.s” and appearing insincere in her stance of neutrality spurred negative responses from viewers, including insults of derogatory, racial stereotypes. Reactions to both the girlfriend’s videos and the attack video vary from commentary on the sad state of society to more intense responses, detailing peoples’ personal ill-wishes, with the average comment pinning shame and cowardice on the offenders.

It seems that we take greater offense and are more moved to action when the strong attack the weak. Had it been a single person attacking someone seemingly weaker, people would still be outraged, but what if it was a single seemingly weaker person suddenly beating down someone appearing stronger? People generally cheer for underdogs to overcome the odds. Had it been a weaker person, would people have kept a more open mind and inquire on the back story?

In the first minute of the video, the most apparent was a single Asian teenager being assaulted by a group of people, most of which had their faces concealed with the exception of one white male. Due to this, I subconsciously assumed that all the attackers were white by automatic association. Later, it became clear that the rest of the attackers were, in fact, Asian males. This single realization made a shift in the initial shock and offense I felt watching the video. Most likely, numerous other people felt this way because it helped to negate the possibility that it was a racial hate crime. 

Had it been all white offenders, would people feel more outraged and how much more? Regardless of race, it was a large group attacking one person, how much does race factor into the level of anger we feel? If it were a white student being attacked, would it matter more how strong he looked? How much does the race of the victim or offenders matter? If we take quicker and stronger actions to protect weaker people, would a greater outrage for an Asian victim indicate that Asians, particularly immigrants, are viewed as weaker than others? What is the ideal reaction rate against what we actually feel and do we or would we want to feel the same amount of outrage and sympathy for a victim regardless of race? 

This video touched a nerve in its viewers and triggered explosive reactions. I’ve felt the animosity brought on by seeing appalling acts of violence. I understand, but to those that wanted to hurt and actually attempted to hurt or harass the attackers and people related to them, realize that violence begets violence. Often, retribution is elevated high above the original offense. Remember these kids did the wrong thing by trying to distribute punishment for an act they deemed abhorrent. If we, in turn, decide to punish them in the same way they attempted to get retribution, we are demonstrating judgment no better than theirs.

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