WASHINGTON -- One expects violence on hot, sticky summer nights when body temperatures rise along with air temperatures in back alleys. Across our cities, there is not enough to hold loose male hormones down. In Chicago, on the night desk of the Chicago Daily News when I was a young reporter, the editor would say, "It's one of those nights." And almost always, it was.
But this summer, many of the nights of violence have been criminal extravaganzas, making one wonder whether something important has changed in American life. Not a wife stabbing her husband over his mistress, but men killing their girlfriend's babies because they were conceived by other "boyfriends." Not one killing for a grudge, but the wiping out of an entire workplace.
Then, if we can't help pondering, through the disciplines of criminology and sociology, what is going on to cause these attacks, we come to the philosophical and spiritual questions behind them.
With Cleveland's Ariel Castro case, in which he held three promising young women chained and treated like sex slaves or wild animals in his basement for 10 years for his "pleasure," being so prominent this week -- convicted and sentenced to life without parole on nearly 1,000 charges -- let us look at three words that have long tormented our religiously torn society: forgiveness, apology and mercy.
They are beautiful words, true words at the heart of Christianity and its believers. But in this terrible case of lust, abduction and murder, we find forgiveness, as well as the other two, raising their ambiguous, and even dangerous, heads.
In the Castro case, it was the mother of one of the young women who, speaking from her home afterward, said she "forgave" Castro. Her position was that of many on the "forgive them" side: She did not want to be eaten alive by hatred; far better to get him and his evil out of her system before he poisoned her, too.
This response is surely understandable, but I have always had my own problems with the first part. Over the years, I have spoken with five or six very smart Roman Catholic priests about this business of automatic forgiveness, and they have all made the religious rejoinder. "The problem," my dear late friend, the Jesuit Father Thomas Gannon, responded when we discussed this, "is that forgiveness cannot really be given from one side only. Forgiveness must be asked for by the guilty person, who must admit and ask forgiveness for his guilt."
This, incidentally, was not the same argument made by the mother of Ron Goldman, who died along with O.J. Simpson's ex-wife. As Simpson came up for parole on unrelated charges this week, the mother said, "I forgive him." But Ron's sister, Kim Goldman, speaking on television, said that, for her part, "I hate him." Every article about Simpson and his being the "mayor" of his jail, made her hate him more.
Me? I stand with my friend, Father Gannon -- forgiveness is too precious to be simply granted without profound repentance and apology. It is too easy to simply write away such a person as O.J. -- or Ariel Castro -- instead of spending the time to understand them and to punish them.
At his sentencing, Castro, saying he was "not trying to make excuses," then went straight on to make excuses: He wasn't a monster; he was sick. He had been a heroic school bus driver for 21 years -- 21 years! He never beat his wife, only when "I couldn't get her to quiet down." Then he discovered he had to have pornography and masturbation -- he was "into it two to three hours nonstop." Why, practically all the sex with the girls was consensual. Sometimes one of them would ask him for sex. He often told them that the whole thing was their fault; they should not have gotten into a man's car. In the end, it was a "harmonious household," he repeated three times.
Finally, he apologized to everyone, including the State of Ohio and the City of Cleveland. One was surprised that he did not apologize to Indiana, Lake Erie and Pennsylvania, but there is only so much you can ask for.
So much for apologies.
Toward the end of the televised part of the sentencing, that third word surprisingly entered into the courtroom. Mercy. A word from the Bible that is most often a blessing to those who give it and to those who receive it. Is it surprising that "mercy" should come up in the Castro trial?
Perhaps not. At the end, prosecutor Anna Faraglia warned those gathered in the courtroom who might be looking for mercy for Ariel Castro that "this is a court of law, not of mercy. This court does not impart mercy."
And what a valuable clarifier those two brief sentences were. For it comes up often with kindhearted people that human kindness should overcome harsh justice. That men should be automatically forgiven their sins, without payment to Ohio and Cleveland or the victims. Answer to both: They should not.
To live in a society of law, justice must come ahead of mercy. With all the misery of this case, at the end, we proved that we do live in such a society.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)