Friday, July 15, 2011

The Need for Calm in the Face of Insanity

I am still in an unsettled state of mind from the brutal murder/dismemberment of 8 year old Leiby Kletsky earlier this week. The pain and shock of this sudden and horrific death must still weigh heavily on the hearts of his parents and the rest of his family and their friends. I don’t know how they can ever learn to cope with it. Life does go on. But I am sure that for them life will never be the same.

Although it is understandable that many of us start playing the blame game asking who’s at fault here, demanding that muderer Levi Aron be given the death penalty, I wonder if at least some of our thoughts are not misplaced here. We are all screaming for justice here. But what is justice in this case?

My initial reaction to this event was pure shock and horror. That was followed almost immediately with anger perhaps even rage at the perpetrator. It is only natural to see him that way - to see him as evil incarnate. But upon reflection I have to ask myself whether there is any real issue about him. Does he deserve the death penalty? Perhaps he does. But If I understand correctly there is no death penalty in New York. Furthermore he was only charged with 2nd degree murder. Again, if I understand correctly the death penalty is never given to anyone anywhere with this charge.

Levi Aron is at the very least a psychopath. It seems increasingly likely that he may even be a paranoid type schizophrenic. The Gemarah calls this type of person a Shoteh – someone who is not responsible for his actions. Mr. Aron may never see the inside of a prison, let alone be executed for his crime. I don’t mean to say that he will be allowed to go free. He will probably be institutionalized in a high security facility for the criminally insane. Probably for the rest of his life.

Should we be outraged by this possible outcome? Not necessarily. This was an anomalous act of a deranged man.

What about all the angst by many reporters and bloggers - all people of good will using this as a lesson in better protecting our children? I agree that we all need to do a better job of that.

This includes those among the rabbinic leaders who are reticent to report suspected abuse to the authorities – requiring that it first be reported to the rabbis. While I completely disagree with them as do other rabbinic leaders - including Rav Elyashiv, I do not agree that this particular incident undermines them. There are a great many arguments that do. But this is not one of them.

First of all, there was no evidence of sex abuse or any kind of abuse against the victim. Nor do I believe that there was ever any evidence of abuse by this murderer of anyone in his past. 2nd of all, this was not a case of not reporting suspected behavior to the police. This was a case of deranged man who - without any warning murdered and dismembered a child.

This kind of thing is something that is almost impossible to protect ourselves or our children from. It is quite possible that a psychotic person can walk around undetected and undiagnosed until it’s too late – as was the case with Mr. Aron.

Yes - there are definitely lessons to be learned here. We must educate our children to be careful about going up to strangers and asking them for help – even if they are lost. I have heard suggestions that children who need help should be taught to approach only women – preferably mothers with children – and ask them for help; or to go into a store and ask a clerk for help; or better yet, to look for a uniformed police officer if possible; and to stay away from single men walking in the street under all circumstances.

These are all probably good ideas. But at the same time we must realize that psychotic killers are an anomaly and the circumstances of this murder are extremely rare. Experts tell us that it is much more likely for abuse to be perpetrated by people we know and trust – often very charming ones. Sexual predators are known be very charming people. They could be family members, close friends, or teachers. Rarely is it ‘stranger danger’.

But that is exactly who Levi Aron was – stranger danger. Should we indoctrinate our children to fear every man they don’t know as a potential danger to them? Teaching children to be wary of anyone and everyone is no way to raise a human being. The vast majority of civilized people are not sexual predators. I’m not quite sure how to advise a parent on teaching a child the ‘golden mean’ of not being overly suspicious of everyone and yet protecting a him from an unlikely event like encountering a psychotic killer like Levi Aron.

Should we all now keep our children locked up in the house? Must we accompany them at all times both to and from an event like a baseball game with their friends in the park? How old should our children be before we trust them for the first time to walk alone in the street? 9? 10? …12? 13? Were Leiby’s parents negligent in allowing their almost 9 year old child to walk home from a camp in a zero crime area like Boro Park? Especially since they rehearsed it with him and were meeting him half way?

The answer is clearly no. They were not negligent. They had every reason to believe their son would be safe in broad daylight in an area like Boro Park. We cannot treat our children like eternal prey to psychotic killers. What happened here was that ‘lightening’ struck. A deranged man came out of nowhere and was in the ‘right place at the right time’. And there is no way of completely protecting a child from something like that.

I think it’s important that we all take a deep breath and realize all these things despite our gut instincts.

Important Update:

I just received the following from Rabbi Yakov Horowitz. He asked if I would post it and I am happy to do so:

Dear All:

In order to assist you in your efforts to simultaneously calm your children and inform them of their critical need to be vigilant about their personal safety, I will be conducting a conference call tomorrow night, Motzoei Shabbos, at 10:30 p.m. in English and a similar call in Yiddish at 11:00 p.m.

Many parents are finding themselves in need of “tech support” to supplement the initial information they received on speaking to their children and we will be devoting time to responding to your questions during the call. Kindly email any questions you would like addressed to and we will do our very best to respond to your emails. Please note that we will only be discussing questions that are global in nature so you should contact Chai Lifeline (917-710-8399) or a mental health professional should you have questions that are more specific.

Additionally, it will be simply impossible to respond to the hundreds of emails we received during the initial conference call or to those we will get prior to the Motzoei Shabbos call. Finally, please email your questions as early as you can so we can organize and prepare responses to them.

We will be using the Chazak line this time and we thank them for their assistance. To join the call, kindly dial 718-258-2008, and when prompted, dial 9 and then 9 again (if you dial the 9 numbers before the prompt, you will be unable to join.)

Should you be unable to join the call, Chazak will be recording it and you will be able to listen to it by dialing 718-258-2008 and follow the prompts.

Best wishes for a gutten Shabbos

Yakov Horowitz
Director, Project YES