All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1995

The Abuse Excuse

What's the Impetus to All the Abuse-Excuse Mongering?

It would be tough to dispute the thesis of this book, which is that being a victim of abuse hardly entitles one to become an abuser in turn.

One wonders a little, then, why Alan Dershowitz felt entitled to inflict this collection on the reader. Surely not because he himself has been similarly assaulted by other writers who slapped together editorial collections with only marginal literary or journalistic warrant.

Still, I’m fairly glad this book was published. We do need to be told again and again that we are responsible, really responsible, for our actions. And the author tells us again and again. Take those Menendez brothers, for instance, who sneaked up on their parents and gunned them down so as to precipitate their inheritances. Then in court the boys claimed they were only retaliating against past, or protecting themselves from future child abuse. That horrific instance of the abuse excuse led to hung juries despite the brothers’ admission of the killings and the skit-fodder phoniness of their courtroom histrionics.

Skater Tonya Harding was abused by her former boyfriend/husband, ergo her ruthlessness in seeking Olympic Gold was seen as partly pardonable, and definitely plea-bargainable. Observes Dershowitz: “Ordinarily, it is the ‘soldiers’ or the ‘mules’ who get favorable plea bargains in exchange for helping to put the boss in prison. Here, the primary beneficiary of the crime–known in advance to her, according to prosecutors—got the best deal.”

An inebriated woman driver who tried to kick a police officer in the groin (without provocation), and who later assaulted the breathalyzer, claimed the scourge of premenstrual syndrome as her excuse. She was acquitted. Victory for women—or for the abuse excuse?

Black rage, adopted-child syndrome, battered husband syndrome (“At times I have felt like a battered husband or boyfriend,” wrote O.J. Simpson in what was to be his parting epistle), the minister, the Super Bowl, the Holocaust, Twinkies, the wrong self-help book, or the oppressive system made me do it. Dershowitz. enumerates excuse after excuse. He seems to waffle, however, about the propriety of jailing Judge Sol Wachtler, the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals convicted of harassing and extorting a former girlfriend, and whose “expansive view of civil liberties I deeply admired.”

These pieces, not all of which illustrate the title theme, refresh our memories of stuff we read in the papers at the time and remind us of how commonplace these excuses have become. The most analytical and interesting item is the introduction, which mentions the first excuse ever, something about a serpent. So what’s the impetus to all the contemporary abuse-excuse mongering? It’s convenient for defendants, for one thing. But if you want to trace it back to philosophic and social theorizing and engineering, better books to read would be FEE’s own Criminal Justice?, edited by Bob Bidinotto, with its scholarly analyses of criminal behavior and of the “excuse-making industry”; or Charles Sykes’ culturally perceptive Society of Victims.

Dershowitz, himself a high-profile criminal lawyer of liberal inclination, laments and catalogs the trend, sheds light on the legal angles, rebukes the rebukes of liberal colleagues over these issues, provides a glossary of abuse excuses, and urges the legal system “to confront the issues of responsibility in a rationally calibrated manner that is comprehensible to jurors and citizens…. We must stop making excuses and start taking responsibility.” At stake, he says, is “the very nature of our experiment with democracy.”

Also justice.

Mr. Brown is a freelance writer.