Punishment: passion or duty? As the nation sits in judgment on the president, questions arise about why we choose to punish. Some say it's bad for us; others can't see living without it.


WASHINGTON -- He's confessed. He's apologized. But President Clinton's National Contrition Tour will not end there: Now, as the nation sits in judgment, he will be punished.

A few pastors want Clinton booted from his Baptist church in Arkansas. Several lawmakers think he should stand in the well of the Senate while he is publicly rebuked. Others want him to personally repay the cost of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation or to take a pension cut. Some have suggested bringing him to criminal trial once his term ends. More simply wish his wife would leave him. And all the while, the public humiliation of the president goes on.

As Congress nears a vote this week on whether to conduct impeachment proceedings, just what consequences Bill Clinton will have to face remain uncertain. But a long menu of possible penances awaits him.

From Column A: He ends up making the history books, all right - as the only president of the century to be impeached.

From Column B: He survives, but is censured by lawmakers who hand him the modern equivalent of a scarlet letter.

From Column C: He escapes untouched, but remains a public spectacle, never again smoking a cigar in public without wondering who out there is giggling. But in judging the appropriate punishment, the public and its lawmakers will be judged as well. How punitive are we, really? Looking for answers, researchers draw on everything from the Bible to psychoanalysis, from historical research to primate studies. Their question: Whom do we punish? And why?

"Punishment is complicated," says University of Missouri psychology professor R. Chris Martin. "We're in the mode of, 'Clinton shouldn't get away with it. There should be consequences.' But punishment is hard to use correctly."

Some believe all the public really cared about was Clinton's admission of guilt. Having to confess was punishment enough.

"If anything, we are less interested in punishment than we are in exposure," says Regina Barreca, a University of Connecticut professor who writes about punishment and forgiveness. "It used to be you confessed, and you got punished or forgiven. Now it's sort of confession for confession's sake. Clinton has gotten a lot of emotional mileage out of it."

Lawmakers are illustrating some creativity in deciding on a punishment - some, for example, simply want Clinton to make a personal appeal before the House Judiciary Committee about, among other things, his sworn denials of liaisons with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

But while Congress' options for punishing the president are wide, they are not unlimited. The Constitution allows the legislature to impeach or rebuke, but flatly forbids Congress from imposing direct punishment against the president's will. A congressional move for a presidential fine or pension cut could ultimately land in court.

Outside the political realm, spiritual leaders, too, have weighed in on how best to punish Clinton. Recently, Paige Patterson, head of the Southern Baptist Convention, urged the president's Little Rock church to expel him unless he amends his ways. Others, including Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor Ismar Schorsch, have called for Clinton's resignation.

"America the punitive, I call it," says Irwin Hyman, a Temple University professor who studies punishment. "This ideology of punishment really harks back to the Puritan ideal."

Indeed, the country was founded by some brilliant public humiliators. In the Colonies, offenders suffered pillorying, locked a raised platform and mocked by their peers (the punishment was paired with, say, nostril-slitting). Wrongdoers sometimes stood wrapped in white sheets carrying white wands in a show of public penance. Others made a practice of blubbering, weeping and howling on the floors of their churches.

But today, despite soaring prison populations and overcrowding on death row, America appears to be into forgiveness. The concept is so popular it has spawned specialized research, with a correspondence course, several national studies and its own think tank.

Researchers at the Wisconsin-based International Forgiveness Institute, for example, are studying how those who forgive are less likely to suffer heart disease than grudge-holders driven to punish. They say those who punish often feel empty, not vindicated.

But some analysts say being quick to forgive is just a fad, and a dangerous one.

"I'm very uncomfortable with this idea that there is a right to forgiveness. It sends the wrong message about accountability and worthiness," says Susan Forward, whose book, "Toxic Parents,"

assails the idea that forgiveness is necessary for closure. "To the person who did wrong, forgiveness is like, 'Oh. I'm off the hook.'"

And while forgiveness may be learned, some researchers believe the instinct to punish is innate.

"The tendency for punishment is probably something genetic," says Filippo Aureli, who studies animal conflict resolution at the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University in Atlanta. "The form punishment takes, however, is much more learned."

Aureli believes that, like people, primates opt to retaliate differently depending on the offender. Macaques, for example, exert milder punishments on wrongdoers at the top of the hierarchy - punishing the leaders by refusing to support them rather than by attacking or banishing them as they would apes in their own peer group.

Not everyone sees punishment in primal terms. Religious thinkers take a more metaphysical view: that the act of wrongdoing contains the seeds of its own punishment.

"In many instances, especially when you're dealing with immorality in a public context, ... the person is already experiencing grave punishment on their own," says C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based interfaith group.

At Clinton's tearful prayer breakfast last month, his speech appeared to draw inspiration from the Biblical story of King David and other passages on self-condemnation, analysts of his remarks noted. After being confronted about his adultery with Bathsheba, David lost his child and was openly shamed.

Perhaps the story is an indication of what the president himself hopes his punishment will be: Although David suffered a deep personal loss, in the end, he never let go of his kingdom.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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