Taking the prize for selfishness


WASHINGTON -- We still have a few more months to go, but, so far, my leading contender for Narcissist of the Year is a 19-year-old University of California at Berkeley sophomore named David Cash Jr.

Mr. Cash, a Los Angeles area resident, saw a friend, Jeremy Strohmeyer, 19, of Long Beach, Calif., attack a 7-year-old girl in the ladies restroom of a Nevada casino near Las Vegas, but walked away without trying to stop the attack or report it, police say.

Heinous crime

The victim, Sherrice Iverson, was then sexually molested and strangled to death, authorities say. Mr. Strohmeyer was charged with murder, kidnapping and sexual assault in the May 1997 crime. His trial begins this week.

But Mr. Cash was not charged with anything. Police determined Mr. Cash was not an active participant in the rape and murder, just a witness, although a horrendously passive one, to the beginning of the crime.

It was Mr. Cash's refusal to show any remorse for the child or any regrets for his inaction in interviews with the Los Angeles Times and on a radio talk show in Los Angeles in July that really made stuff hit the fan.

"I'm not going to get upset over someone else's life," he told the Times. "I just worry about myself first."

His sympathies were with Mr. Strohmeyer, he said, and he was "not going to lose sleep over somebody else's problems" -- a reference to Sherrice's death.

On the contrary, he said, his notoriety had helped him get dates.

It also helped Mr. Cash, a nuclear engineering major, to become a magnet for pickets, protests and petition drives in Los Angeles and at Berkeley.

Media have paid attention to this case because of the racial angle. The victim was black, the suspect and his friend are white. But, while crimes across racial lines always enflame passions, whether white-on-black or vice versa, race is the least significant angle to this story.

Whenever I see young children running around unsupervised in this day and age, I am appalled.

Far more significant is the fundamental question raised by Mr. Cash: How much is each of us obliged to help someone else?

Clark County, Nev., District Attorney Stewart Bell said, Mr. Cash's inaction "may be a crime in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of the Nevada legislature."

No, it wasn't, and that should change. Every state that does not have a "Sherrice's Law," as some activists have called it, should pass one to criminalize the failure of any adult to report the sexual assault of a child.

But passing laws isn't enough. As remarks by Mr. Cash, an academic achiever at one of America's most prestigious universities, illustrate, moral emptiness is not limited to the ghetto.

If we are to prevent the fabric of our society from coming apart, we must teach our children to excel not only academically but also in their appreciation of their obligations to others.

The tragedy of Sherrice Iverson offers parents a painful reminder: Keep an eye on your kids. She was left unsupervised by her father in the casino-hotel's video arcade, according to news reports. Security videotapes show her playing with Mr. Strohmeyer in the arcade before the murder.

Parental warning

But the sad tale of David Cash offers a message to parents, too: If you don't want your kids to grow up like little solipsists who think they are the only beings who matter in the universe, teach them to look out for something more in life than themselves. A society of self-centered greed heads cannot survive for long.

In a way, that was the message handed down by a judge in an unrelated case of another youth in Winona, Minn.

After convicting an 18-year-old for vandalizing the local Veterans Memorial Park, Judge Dennis Challeen of Winona County District Court sentenced the youth on Aug. 14 to view "Saving Private Ryan," Steven Spielberg's World War II movie, and write a paper on what it teaches him.

He received the sentence after a corrections agent said the lad "didn't know what a veteran was and knew nothing about World War II."

Sometimes you can learn a lot from a good movie. "Saving Private Ryan" offers an excellent example.

Its interpretation of the D-Day landing has been called the most authentic and painfully realistic of any ever filmed.

I wonder if David Cash has seen the film. He might learn something valuable about how his freedom to ignore the pain of others was paid for by young people who cared about somebody other than themselves.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/01/98

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