ON THE ISSUE of crime and punishment, everyone I know around Baltimore, street cops included, now becomes miraculously liberal. Jamal Lewis goes to cut himself a deal, and all those who previously cried for harsh mandatory sentencing laws on narcotics now ask plaintively, "Can't this wait until the off-season?"
It helps that Lewis runs over people when he has a football in his hand. Four years ago, according to federal law enforcement officials, he helped broker a cocaine deal in Atlanta. But one year ago, he rushed for 2,066 yards, second-best in NFL history, and this year helps lead a Baltimore Ravens team with Super Bowl dreams. Such a possibility makes our hearts swell so buoyantly that it blocks circulation to our brains, thus obliterating all previously held beliefs that justice should be blind but not dumb.
We now cut plea bargains with our own emotions.
We say to ourselves: Four years ago? In Atlanta? Come on, let it go.
We say to ourselves: If they waited this long, can't they wait a few more months, until the football season's over, and it doesn't have to ruin our Sunday afternoons?
Naturally, none of us knows if Lewis is guilty. (Some of us don't even know which Lewis is in trouble this time. Yesterday morning, one of our local TV news operations said it was Ray Lewis facing charges. No, no, newshounds - it's Jamal Lewis. It was Ray Lewis last time, in the famous murder case. The Ravens lead the league in Lewises, and in criminal indictments, and it does get confusing.)
Jamal Lewis, we are told by his lawyers, only looks to plea-bargain out of common sense. If he stood trial, he could get 10 years of hard time. Copping a plea, he will reportedly do only four months in prison, two month on home detention and not have to miss any ballgames - though we are told that the NFL, morally offended that one of its stars might be involved in activity that helps fuel the great crime and violence of our time, is thinking about suspending him - for four whole games.
So we all are caught in our various hypocrisies. We want the law to treat everyone with the same blindness to money and position unless, heaven forbid, it happens to intrude on our God-given right to be entertained.
We tell ourselves there's a greater good involved in treating Jamal Lewis gently.
The NFL, computing all the money involved and not wishing to undermine competitive balance or TV ratings, dulls its potential punishment.
Fans, having invested in season tickets and not wishing to be disappointed on Sundays, couch their thinking in grander terms: It's the happiness of an entire community, we tell ourselves. Why ruin the party for everyone just because the young Lewis, a kid scuffling to make ends meet, might have made a mistake four long years ago?
Then there are the TV networks. How happy was ABC-TV last night, and how happy were its advertisers? Monday Night Football is presented each week as a national celebration. It's not just football, it's the psychological link between the game and our national identity with manly heroics, with courage and grace.
Throw the Lewis case into this mix, and you've got advertisers who spend millions asking themselves: Can we get a rebate every time you mention the words "plea bargain?"
In fact, Lewis' predicament reminds us of the eternal problem with cases of this nature: We're all gung-ho for harsh justice until it touches our own lives. And, several decades into America's so-called War on Drugs, we don't even know what weapons to use - because we haven't figured out what we're fighting.
Jamal Lewis, say hello to Melvin Williams.
The two men come to us at opposite ends of the drug narrative. Williams, one of the early heroin dealers of Baltimore, has spent much of his adult life in prison. But you know where you can find him these days? On TV. There he was, the other night, playing a kind of neighborhood elder statesman on The Wire, the HBO dramatic series about life on Baltimore's most drug-riddled streets.
Williams' appearance is a kind of wink for the locals. Having paid a considerable price behind bars, Williams spent his whole life being described as a bad man. What the hell - he sold heroin that ruined lives. But ask the same questions about Williams that we now ask about Jamal Lewis: What were his options? How desperate was his situation?
The prisons are filled with people who turned to drugs seeing no apparent options. They came up hard. Poverty stared them in the face. They reached for whatever survival they could find.
Those are classic liberal arguments seeking simple human compassion - and we don't often like to hear them.
Unless it concerns our football team.
But as we seek understanding and perspective for Jamal Lewis, maybe we should look a little closer inside our prisons, home to thousands who broke the drug laws out of their own desperation but didn't have the salvation of running exceptionally well with a football.