Commentary

The Power of Shame

This article first appeared in the Washington Times, February 14, 2000.
In September 1998, Jeremy Strohmeyer admitted murdering 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson in a Las Vegas casino and was sentenced to life in prison. He was back in court in mid-February, explaining that he couldn’t remember committing the crime and wanting to recant his plea.

Strohmeyer concluded his rather implausible claim by blaming his buddy David Cash, who was with him at the time.

Unfortunately for Strohmeyer, casino videotapes show him, not Cash, lingering in the bathroom where Iverson was killed.

But by his own admission Cash, a Berkeley University engineering student, watched Strohmeyer assault the girl and did nothing. His callous behavior caused Nevada last year to require anyone witnessing a violent crime against a child to notify the police.

Nevada’s law will not affect Cash. The Berkeley community has found an alternative means of punishing him, however: shame.

In today’s society, tolerance often seems to be the highest virtue. The worst crime is to be “judgmental.”

But Iverson’s brutal murder has caused Berkeley, long the repository of tolerant liberalism, to recognize the value of shame.

People tend to think of shame in more traditional societies like Japan. Yet, shame played an important role in early America.

Practices such as the stocks soon died out in less-intimate, less-religious times. But frustration with pervasive lawbreaking combined with concern over bulging prisons has caused shame to make a comeback as a form of punishment.

The most important use of shame, however, is where the law does not reach. Like Cash.

Cash and Strohmeyer were high school best friends who went gambling in mid-1997. Strohmeyer, who had a troubled past, lured Sherrice into a casino restroom where he raped and murdered her. Cash watched from an adjoining stall as Strohmeyer threatened the child, and then walked out. Afterward, Strohmeyer confessed his actions, but Cash said nothing.

Explained Cash on a radio talk show: “I do not know this girl. I am sad that I lost my best friend.”

He was criticized, but enjoyed the attention. He claimed media coverage got him dates. He covered his college dorm room with articles on the case. And he went on a Los Angeles radio-talk show.

Until then, Cash had been largely anonymous on campus. There had been demands that he be expelled, but school administrators said that they had no cause to do so. Cash exulted that “the university officials are behind me, baby.”

However, the radio hosts organized demonstrators to head north to Berkeley, where they were joined by Sherrice’s mother. Cash’s anonymity was over.

Having sown the wind of notoriety, he began to reap its whirlwind. Anti-Cash graffiti sprung up around campus, his dorm mates shunned him and the student senate voted to urge Cash to withdraw. He was kicked out of a fraternity party and chased by a crowd back to his dorm. A stranger spat in his face at a 7-11.

Some people demanded that the government find a way to prosecute him. Yet not everything that is immoral should be illegal. The state has a duty to punish those who harm others; it is not, in contrast, well-equipped to make people moral. In a case like this, government shouldn’t try to do so.

At the same time, however, the campus community has an opportunity and obligation to express its outrage over his conduct. In fact, the inculcation of virtue and formation of social mores is the job of civil, not political, society. Private institutions, ranging from families and churches to community associations and even college student bodies, should attempt to make people moral.

People like Cash deserve to be punished. One way to do so is to withdraw human fellowship from him.

Indeed, were the University of California a private institution, it should consider expelling him. (It is more difficult for tax-supported public organizations to make fine moral distinctions among those they serve.)

Of course, Cash may never get it. Nevertheless, it is important to build and enforce a communal moral code; public punishment of people like Cash educates others. Even those with dead consciences, like Cash, might behave differently knowing that their actions will result in painful consequences.

Naturally, he has hired an attorney, Mark Werksman, who explains: “Nobody is going to drive David Cash out of there unless he’s carried out in a gurney.”

Anyway, Werksman added, “the public anger will subside. And David will be a nuclear engineer someday, probably far, far away from California.”

That is, unless the people living far, far away from California discover what residents of Berkeley have learned: They can help make their community a more virtuous place by shaming David Cash.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.