Friday was the second anniversary of the tragic Parkland shooting. The shooting was remembered in an appropriate-enough way in the media, except for one (to me) conspicuous thing: the continued, thoughtless, fact-free demonization of Scot Peterson, the School Resource Officer universally blamed for not entering the building where the shooting took place. Almost without exception, journalism about Parkland continues to take for granted the unexamined dogmas that Peterson “failed” to enter Building 12 and “failed” to confront the shooter, that he knew where the shooter was but deliberately hid from danger, and that his malfeasance goes beyond cowardice to legally actionable neglect, and beyond civil wrong to outright criminality.
When I first questioned this narrative, just a few weeks after the shooting, I did so very tentatively, not entirely sure that Peterson was innocent, but sure that the rush to demonize him was premature and unfair. That was two years ago. Since then, having discussed the matter with Peterson, having pored over legal briefs and public documents, having read (or seen) just about all of the relevant journalism on Parkland, and having viewed and re-viewed videos and animations of the shooting, I’m now convinced that the public campaign to discredit Peterson is a defamation of historic proportions, on par with the similar attacks made on Richard Jewell and Steven Hatfill. It would take a book (and full-time devotion to writing it) to fully vindicate Peterson, not just as a legal but as a moral matter. I wish I had the time to write it and do justice to it. I hope someone does.
But you don’t need to delve that deeply into the details of the case to wonder how justice could possibly demand treatment of the kind Peterson has gotten for the last two years. All you need are the basic facts of the case, some empathy, some common sense, and the capacity for role reversal. Then you need to ask how these things apply to the case of someone accused of failing to put himself in lethal danger under conditions of uncertainty, confusion, and tactical disadvantage.
Try that on for size as you consider a recent article in The Boca Raton Tribune:
As two years have gone by since the devastating Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, the father of one of the victims recently filed a lawsuit.
Andrew Pollack’s 17-year-old daughter, Meadow, was one of the lives lost two years ago when gunman Nicholas Cruz carried out the attack.
Pollack recently filed a lawsuit this past Wednesday in the federal court against the United States of America. …
School Resource officer Scot Peterson was also sued by Pollack and Kaplan for child neglect in relation to Meadow’s death. Peterson is now faced with seven counts of child neglect, three counts of culpable negligence, and one count of perjury from the Stoneman Douglas shooting.
Imagine for a moment that Scot Peterson really is guilty of every charge leveled against him. I don’t believe that he is, but imagine for argument’s sake that he was. Would this be fair treatment even for a guilty person facing what he faced? Can anyone really prove that Peterson deserves moral opprobrium plus widespread ridicule plus a series of civil suits for wrongful death and child neglect plus criminal charges that could put him away for 90 years? Are there are any in-principle limits on the retribution to be taken on him? Or are people like Andrew Pollack content to enact a grotesque fantasy of divine retribution on a convenient scapegoat (or two or three), simply because they have the money and legal guns to pull it off? How far are these people to be allowed to go in their pursuit of outright vengeance before we stop deferring to their status as victims?
Those of us who have done philosophical work on punishment know how difficult it is to demonstrate a single substantive proposition on that topic. Arguably, retributive theories of punishment have decisively been refuted by David Boonin’s comprehensive 2008 book, The Problem of Punishment. And yet retributive justice remains the law and practice of the land, and loose assertions are made about who deserves what punishment with hand-waving ease. If you think it’s so easy to justify retributive punishment, set your mere emotions aside, and confront the relevant questions in a rational, objective way: Why is it that the guilty deserve punishment? What is it that they deserve? How do we decide the exact amount that they deserve? And how exactly does that apply to the case at hand? Imagine that your life, or the life of a loved one (or both), depended on the cogency of your answer. How well do you think you’d do? Don’t leave it as a rhetorical question. Sit down, and give it a real shot. It’s harder than it seems.
In a way, you can even forget that particular exercise. Be as punitive as you want to be. But if you want to take a punitive line, ask yourself: what if the people making the accusations against Peterson end up being wrong? What if their campaign against him–even just part of it–is a terrible mistake? What if they’ve allowed themselves to get caught up in the heat of the moment, and in doing so, have condemned a man to a punishment he doesn’t deserve? An impartial person would at least grant the possibility. In that case, they’ve done Scot Peterson (and his family) a grievous wrong. If so, what punishment would they deserve? Moral opprobrium? Derision? A civil suit? Criminal charges? Ninety years’ imprisonment? All of those in sequence? Shouldn’t people willing to dish these things out be willing to accept them in their own case if they end up being wrong–and publicly say so?
Only people utterly sure of themselves–people capable of reveling in a fantasy of omniscience or infallibility–could dismiss questions like this. But it’s precisely such people who are most likely to be sacrificing the cause of justice to the demands of vengeance. “Vengeance is mine…saith the Lord.” It’s probably best to let God keep it. Those who decide to appropriate vengeance for human purposes are not, as they imagine, on the side of the angels. They’re paving a road for themselves that leads in the reverse direction, and dragging us along for the ride.