Post-Easter catch-up

Catching up from the Easter weekend, the O’Reilly Factor kicked off the week with an interesting religion segment.  A pastor appeared on the Factor to explain why he thinks there’s really no “hell,” not even for people like Adolf Hitler.  O’Reilly argued that without the concept of an eternal punishment for doing evil on Earth, the Judeo-Christian idea of doing good in this life and being rewarded in the afterlife would be undermined.  I think that many people watching probably disagreed with both views, and the debate called to mind something I’ve written and talked about in the past — the idea that as Americans flock away from organized religion, they seem increasingly to be turning to psychotherapists for help with their moral dilemmas.  If you read my piece dated 3/28/10, you know that I have major reservations about most psychologists pulling double duty as both mental-illness healers and secular pastors, but I also think that there are a relative few who are able to help people think about moral issues in a secular, intellectual way and reach rationally-defensible conclusions that will serve them well in life (and, more often than not, also happen to be consistent with the teachings of the world’s major faiths).  O’Reilly’s debate with the pastor is a good example of an issue that people sometimes bring up in therapy — what happens to “evil” people when they die.  In my experience, most Americans believe in a creator, and they think that the story and teachings of Jesus have value in understanding how that creator wants us to live, but many simultaneously think that the teachings of the Buddha and Confucius and others also have value because they converge on many of the same conclusions.  In my experience, what Americans increasingly do not believe in is religious dogma and ritual — the ideas that you need to avoid certain foods, wear certain garments, do certain things on certain days, donate a certain percentage of income to a certain entity, unquestionably accept others’ interpretations of the creator’s wishes, etc.  On the “hell” question specifically, I think most people who approach it in a dogma-free way agree with O’Reilly that the ultimate outcome isn’t the same for people who’ve been truly “evil” on Earth and people who haven’t, but I think they also agree with the pastor that there isn’t Dante’s inferno.  So, if I were to try to help someone figure out what he/she believes about what happens to “evil” people when they die, I’d try to help the person to think it through rationally, and reasonable minds could come to different conclusions.  Some might conclude that if there’s something wrong with us when we die, the creator puts us through some kind of reparation process, and after going through that, we can all end up in a good place.  Others might conclude, as I personally do, that there’s not Dante’s inferno, but rather people who’ve rejected their creator by being wantonly destructive here on Earth just don’t go on after death, i.e. they just cease to exist (for me personally, that’s the essential point of the Jesus story that a billion people celebrated over the weekend — that there’s a life after this one and that human beings should think about how they’re living this life if they want to go on to the next one).  Whatever you believe, it’s sometimes quite scary and sometimes quite heartening to see people, especially young people, wrestling intellectually with these kinds of issues, and it can be similarly both scary and heartening to see whom they turn to for guidance, whether it be an individual or a group.  As I said a year ago (3/28/10), I still generally don’t recommend shrinks — no one really taught us how to be secular pastors in shrink school, so the quality of the moral guidance that you could find among shrinks would vary drastically, and you’d hate to end up in the wrong place!

Speaking of young people, I took a poll last week of undergraduate college students, asking them to rate the magnitude of the United States’ national debt problem.  Specifically, I asked:  “How big of a problem do you think the U.S.’s national debt is?”  With about 200 students responding, the response options and results were:  “There’s no bigger problem; it’s a national emergency” (22%); “It’s among the biggest problems, but not the biggest, not an emergency” (59%); “It’s not among the biggest problems currently, below several other bigger problems in priority” (16%); “It’s not a big problem now and won’t be for a long time” (3%).  If you agree, as I do, with the 22% who think it’s a national emergency, then you probably find it alarming, as I do, that the other 78% don’t (particularly as members of the current college-age generation may have more to lose than any previous generation in terms of their standard of living if the U.S. economy loses its global leadership position during their lifetimes).

Maybe Americans, young and old, who aren’t appreciating the seriousness of the national debt problem, are just preoccupied with the impending British royal wedding.  In my humble opinion, Americans brimming with emotional anticipation of the wedding may get more out of those hours by trying to figure out why they don’t have more going on in their lives (or, they could at least maybe learn something by watching one of the final space shuttle launches set to take place the same morning — and by the way, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in January’s Arizona shooting rampage and whose husband will command this shuttle mission, reportedly is well enough to be in attendance, which will be a second truly-amazing feat to behold if you choose watch the launch instead of the royal wedding).  I’m always fascinated by how people decide, en masse, to pretend that inherently-useless/irrelevant things, people, and activities are valuable/important, whether we’re talking about gold (think about it — why is it valuable?) or the British royal family (especially as viewed by Americans).  Personally, I’m not sure why in the world an American would care, let alone have time, to watch strangers, across the globe, whose biggest accomplishment was passing successfully through the birth canal, get married (see my post dated 6/29/09 for the last time I wrote about the American fascination with the British royals).  Then again, I don’t understand why one group of guys putting an orange rubber sphere through a hoop more times than another group of guys here in the U.S. is important either.

Now, in more traditional Lawpsyc news:

Remember the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate secretly videotaped him having a sexual encounter with another male student and streamed the video online?  Well, the roommate is now facing charges of committing a hate crime and obstructing justice (apparently by trying to destroy/hide evidence).  Good.  This was no “joke.”  The defendant actively tried to hurt the deceased (via public humiliation) as I see it, and that merits severe punishment, regardless of the deceased’s sexual orientation.  (As you know if you’re a regular reader, I don’t like “hate crimes” laws because they imply that we should hold back some punishment when hate isn’t a motive so that we’ll have extra punishment to give when it is.  That’s illogical as I see it.  If someone gets beaten up, for example — as happened to a girl in a Maryland McDonald’s restaurant recently with horrifying video of the attack posted on the Internet — I’m not less upset with the attacker if the motive was theft than I am if the motive was hatred of the victim’s sexual orientation, as it reportedly was in the McDonald’s incident.)

A man tried to set off a pipe bomb in a Colorado shopping mall on the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School murder/suicide shooting rampage, also in Colorado.  Thankfully, the mall attack was unsuccessful, resulting only in a relatively-minor, non-injury fire.  With the help of surveillance video in the mall, a suspect has been identified, and a nationwide manhunt is underway.

There’s also a suspect in the murder of a female Chinese exchange student in Toronto.  The murder was caught on a web cam and witnessed by the victim’s horrified boyfriend who was watching helplessly from China (just imagine for a moment the trauma of watching that unfolding before you on your computer screen, let alone experiencing it).  Thankfully, Canadian authorities have the suspect in custody at this hour.  (And while I’m on this story, it’s a perfect illustration of why I hate “hate crimes” laws — I don’t care if the murderer killed this young woman because she was Chinese or because he just wanted to steal her computer; I want him to get the maximum punishment regardless.)

Six teens, male and female, are in custody in Florida after brutally murdering, dismembering, and burning the body of a male peer.  The victim reportedly was the former boyfriend of one of the defendants.  This is alarmingly reminiscent of another Florida case in which several teenage boys set fire to a peer, burning the victim within an inch of his life, apparently because the perpetrators believed that the victim had reported a theft that they had committed.  These cases fall on the extreme end of an alarming continuum.  On the more benign end, but still a serious harbinger of bad times for the U.S. in my opinion, is an article in the current Reader’s Digest about the thriving Internet market for term papers, including law school and seminary term papers.  All of it supports what I’ve said many times and summarized in my column, “Cultural Chaos Compounding Crime” ( in 2009:  Children are growing up in this country with less and less moral training and fewer and fewer moral expectations, so it’s no wonder we’re seeing more depraved behavior from more and younger people at all levels, from grotesque violence to economic fraud, and none of it bodes well for the country.  Like the teens involved in the attempted arson murder case, based on what’s been reported about the teens involved in this new case and their motives, they belong in adult court facing the maximum punishment possible (and if you’re interested in the factors that go into that determination, see my posts dated 5/1/09 and 3/8/07).

In another alarming case involving teens, two Minnesota girls committed suicide by hanging in fulfillment of an apparent “suicide pact” that they formed in response to bullying.  Beyond the double tragedy, which is clear, it’s unusual in that kids who commit suicide in response to bullying often seem to have had a sense of isolation, as if no one was on their side and no one would ever have understood how they felt, let alone helped them.  These girls apparently had each other’s social support, so it makes one wonder whether they had maybe developed a “folie a deux,” a shared delusion, perhaps inspired by something in film, music, literature, etc., about escaping to a better place together through suicide.  In any case, as I can’t seem to say often enough, if your kid’s being bullied you have a serious problem, and if your kid is a bully, you have a serious problem.  I see many parents concerned about the former these days, but I still don’t see enough parents concerned about the latter.  If your kid’s a bully, then you are failing, miserably, in teaching your child moral values and behaviors that will likely spare him/her a lifelong series of interpersonal disappointments.

And while I’m on the topic of parenting, remember just last week when I wrote about Abercrombie & Fitch’s incredibly-stupid padded bikini top for girls as young as eight years old?  Well, on the heels of that, competitor J. Crew apparently thought it would be a good idea to make an ad in which a young boy is portrayed with painted toenails.  Seriously, folks, how about we all start thinking, “How does this help the kids?” and if we don’t have a really good, rationally-defensible answer, lets maybe think about not doing it, hmmm?  Just like they don’t need to be hearing about homosexuality, or any sexuality, in the first grade, there’ll be plenty of time for gender-bending, if that’s what they want to do, after they’re old enough to have figured out what gender they even are to begin with.

And to wrap up this catch-up, yes, she’s back…Lindsay Lohan.  The judge handling her jewelry-theft case inexplicably changed the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor (based on the value of the necklace in question, the original felony charge was the proper charge) and then, pre-trial, ruled that there was enough evidence to conclude that Lohan had violated her probation (which she was on for previous crimes) and sentenced Lohan to 120 days in jail followed by community service.  Lohan spent a whopping four hours in jail before being bailed out pending an appeal of the judge’s finding and sentence for the probation violation.   People always ask me whether this sort of thing is “celebrity justice,” but the truth is, it’s scarier than that — it’s become the standard “catch and release” policy in many jurisdictions across the country for defendants famous and in-famous alike.  I hate to tell you, but the same thing’s probably happening to criminals near you, day in and day out, putting them back on the streets with you time after time, crime after crime, and it won’t change until we elect people who see the wisdom and compassion of getting tougher earlier on people who start down the wrong road.  In Lohan’s case, the prosecutor may, and should, appeal the judge’s rulings as well and try to get the original felony charge reinstated.  As of now — theoretically, eventually, someday — Lohan faces a trial (and sentence, if convicted) for the theft itself plus the 120 days in jail for the probation violation if the appeals court upholds that sentence.  Meanwhile though, she’s back on the streets, so if you’re in L.A., watch for wildly-swerving vehicles, and lock up your jewelry!


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