The Power of Shame

This article first appeared in the Washington Times, February 14, 2000.
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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 buddyDavid 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 behaviorcaused Nevada last year to require anyone witnessing a violent crime against achild 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. Theworst 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 concernover bulging prisons has caused shame to make a comeback as a form ofpunishment.

The most important use of shame, however, is where the law does notreach. 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 adjoiningstall 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 sadthat I lost my best friend."

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

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

However, the radio hosts organized demonstrators to head north toBerkeley, 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 thestudent senate voted to urge Cash to withdraw. He was kicked out of a fraternityparty and chased by a crowd back to his dorm. A stranger spat in his face at a7-11.

Some people demanded that the government find a way to prosecute him. Yetnot everything that is immoral should be illegal. The state has a duty topunish 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, theinculcation of virtue and formation of social mores is the job of civil, not political, society. Private institutions, ranging from families and churches tocommunity 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, itshould 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 buildand enforce a communal moral code; public punishment of people like Casheducates others. Even those with dead consciences, like Cash, might behavedifferently 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 agurney."

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

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