Who could have imagined a kidnapping story from Cleveland, Ohio being horrific enough to take our attention away from the shock and sadness of the Boston Marathon Bombings?
Just as we began the process of rebuilding our faith in the safety of our communities, news broke about a monster who enslaved three young women for ten years in conditions too frightening for most people to comprehend.
Indeed, anyone with a beating heart and an ounce of humanity can barely watch the news without sobbing.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that 52 year-old Ariel Castro committed crimes of torture that make the atrocities at Abu Gharib seem pleasant. Reporters have use words like “captivity,” “dungeon,” and “house of horrors,” to describe the scene.
The young victims were chained in the basement and denied food and water. The windows were covered with plastic garbage bags and doors were rigged on the inside so that nobody could get out. One victim was reportedly impregnated five times, then beaten and starved to induce miscarriages. Another became pregnant and gave birth to Castro’s child inside the home, in a plastic kiddie pool. That baby is now six and was rescued along with the others.
Initially charged with only a handful of crimes, the prosecutor made it clear last week that he would seek many more charges during grand jury proceedings, including a separate count for every act of sexual violence, and murder charges for the killing of multiple unborn fetuses. He even suggested the possibility of capital murder charges, though imposing the death penalty against a person convicted of murdering a fetus could raise constitutional questions.
The prosecutor’s tough talk was welcome relief for a public that believes even the death penalty isn’t enough punishment. When thousands of charges are ultimately filed, nobody will complain that the prosecutor is grandstanding but we should complain that he hasn’t mentioned filing civil rights charges. Under Ohio law, any crime committed against a person “based on gender” is subject to enhanced punishment, and while it might not matter that a judge tacks on extra years to what will surely be, at a minimum, multiple life sentences, there is tremendous value in a government official saying out loud that Castro’s actions violated women’s Civil Rights. Violence against any person based on who they are in society is a crime against the very fabric of civilized democracy.
The prosecutor would also be wise to call on Ohio lawmakers to enact a law against torture. Existing laws against kidnapping and rape are inadequate to define the terroristic, soul-destroying nature of what Ariel Castro did to his victims.
And someone should address the insulting reality of Castro’s status as the “father” of a rape-conceived child. Although he can’t exercise visitation rights from jail, Castro won’t lose his parental rights until he is found guilty, which means for now he enjoys the privileged status of fatherhood on par with that of Ohio’s best and most loving dads.
The case also raises troubling questions about whether our legal system is doing its best to deter perpetrators of violence against women and children.
Deterrence doesn’t work very well when only 2% of rapists in the United States spend even one day behind bars, a number that hasn’t changed in fifteen years despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on useless training and education programs. The average punishment for child abusers is even worse with only a small percentage of offenders even being charged, and nearly all those convicted receiving punishment of mere probation.
And why aren’t we doing a better job caring for our neighbors. Maybe it’s stating the obvious but if a guy’s house is sealed up and the windows are covered with plastic garbage bags, there’s a good chance something ugly is going on inside. When a little girl is seen going in and out of such a home, someone needs to make a phone call to protective services.
It doesn’t take a village, it takes only a single act of kindness; a notion that apparently didn’t strike Castro’s brothers who were in the home many times and claim they saw nothing suspicious.
It’s a crime in Ohio not to report a crime. Castro’s brothers have been cleared by law enforcement because the victims said they weren’t involved, but unless the brothers helped the victims escape, or can credibly explain why they thought nothing was wrong in a house where four people were being held against their will, they should be prosecuted if only to inspire all of us to look a little harder the next time.
Ariel Castro will get his due, but our efforts to understand how such a barbaric crime could have occurred requires us to ask tough questions of those who could have done more, including especially the Cleveland police who showed up at Castro’s home several times over the years in response to reports of criminal or suspicious activity. Why didn’t they go inside? They knew there was a child in the home. Why didn’t it matter that the place looked uninhabitable? Some say the cops didn’t care that a child might have been inside because poor kids are expected to live in squalor. No doubt police aren’t saying very much because they’re worried about liability. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if they simply fell on their swords and invited the victims to sue so they could get the money they need to recover from unspeakable violence that might never have occurred if the legal system worked as it should to prevent violence against women and children.
We can’t stop all violence, but we can make sure our collective rage against one man does not blind us to the failure of law itself that made the suffering of three young women so much worse.