If this is justice, it does not set the world straight.

For nine difficult days we sat in the Androscoggin County Courthouse observing the trial of Brandon Thongsavanh for the murder of Morgan McDuffee.

Morgan was a student at Bates prior to his senseless death on March 3, 2002, and Brandon is the son of a respected, well-liked employee and chef in dining services at the college.

When the foreman of the jury announced the February verdict there was an audible gasp from all parts of the courtroom. The defendant did not show any emotion, but he was the only one who didn’t.

Morgan’s family and friends hugged each other and cried as the variety of emotions, tightly held inside for nine days, burst forth. Brandon’s family and friends showed shock, disbelief and sobs. The mothers of both men cried uncontrollably.

Judy Thongsavanh cried, we are sure, because of an enormous sense of loss. Lisa Freeman cried for many reasons, not the least of which was the realization that this verdict would not bring Morgan back. As she put it, “everybody loses.”

Morgan is gone and now Brandon is lost to his loved ones. If this is justice, it does not set the world straight.

Over the course of the trial our minds struggled with this society’s preoccupation with violence. The narratives of the young people involved in the tragic events were shot through with violence.

Metaphorically, we are a people with our finger always on the trigger, ready to squeeze it in the search for dominance. The young are pounded by a commercial market and entertainment world that validates violence as a legitimate tool of social interaction. It dehumanizes people; it objectifies them.

This pounding, incessant message of violence must have a pervasive impact. We can’t help but think that violence has become a normal part of the social fabric, the context in which our young people come of age.

The profitability of violence has captured American culture in sports, entertainment, foreign policy, communities and neighborhoods. We need to find ways to move away from this dreadful marriage to violence or we will see many more 9-day trials which end with everybody losing.

Rage – profound anger – of so many of these young adults was a leit motif of this story.

Where does this raw, uncontrollable anger come from? From neglect? Some. From economic deprivation, and all the limited opportunities that entails? In part. But these answers are incomplete.

We could not escape the feeling that anger was their way of achieving self-empowerment. Anger was the sina qua non of membership in “the group.” It gave the person identity, standing and value in a violent subculture.

But this anger is self-consuming, and it is dangerous to society. This rage takes too much energy; there is nothing left for work, family, self-development, etc., and it kills people. And we have this growing feeling that behind the anger and violence lurks fear – a fear of what the world does not promise.

Anger, fear, rage reign in the absence of hope.

We also understand that class plays a critical role in American society. Some behaviors transcend class – alcohol, drugs and propensity toward violence – they were present in equal amounts across class lines that transcended town and gown divisions.

Still, class makes a pointed difference.

Social mobility in American life is sometimes a reality; it is also true that it is often a myth. The mythical side emphasizes the potential we all have to “make it.” Those who don’t make it, then, are judged to have failed by themselves and others. That has all to do with the enormous weight we put on individuality in our culture.

The logic is that if you don’t “make it,” you are a failure and it is your fault. As Richard Sennett says in his recent book “Respect In a World of Inequality,” “it deprives people of hope.”

After a particularly long and difficult day in court which left us very depressed, one of us had occasion to be with family that included an 11-month-old grandson. He is a very sweet, happy, loving child.

When grandpa entered the room, the child, holding onto his dad’s hands, made his way across the room, smiling and laughing to greet his grandpa. Naturally, grandpa scooped him into his arms and hugged him hard.

Later that evening and the next day, we commented that the innocence and joy of that 11-month-old must have been present in the principals in this trial. Where did it go? Was there nobody, literally or figuratively, to scoop them up to give them a hug throughout their lives?

Lisa Freeman, Morgan’s mom, got it right. There were no winners in this trial. Everybody lost.

Justice before the law is important, but it is over-rated. A more profound justice is needed – a justice that creates a fairer world, free of violence and anger, holding out hope, real hope, for all.

We need to get our priorities straight.

F. Celeste Branham is dean of students and James Carignan is dean of Bates College in Lewiston.


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