These are genuinely fragile times where we need to be sensitive and more respectful of people and their differences. These are also days where we need to be more attentive to the meaning of justice and honor.
Higher education, for the most part, has been an arena that has tried to empower the individual spirit to be all that it can be. Colleges and universities have tried to create an environment where ideas can be freely shared, explored and critiqued, no matter how extreme or radical they might seem.
Most colleges and universities in their mission statements are committed to the principles of justice and truth, and respecting and protecting the character and integrity of the individual student, no matter what the circumstance. At least idealistically one would want to believe that.
Traditionally, higher education has tried to call students to a higher standard and has attempted in most instances to model that higher standard.
However, power poorly used, whether it's the government, the church or a college or university, is scandalous. It is probably downright immoral, especially if that abuse of power attempts to destroy the character and integrity of a young person.
Four years ago a shining star from one of our local high schools was recruited by a formidable private college because of his scholarship, leadership and athletic ability. PJ's profile as a high school senior was exceptional. Academically he was above average. He was president of his senior class and known for his generous heart when it came to community service. He was also a two sport varsity letter athlete and excelled in both those team sports. He was any college's dream candidate.
PJ received many offers from a wide range of colleges and universities. He accepted the package from a small out of state college because of its reputation, scholarship and the fact that he would get real playing time as a college athlete. He thought, as a high school senior, that it was a match made in heaven.
Freshman year came and went. The transition from high school life to college life went reasonably well. College athletics, even in a non-Division One school, is like holding down a full time job. College academics are equally as challenging. It takes a few bumps in the road to find the balance, but most college athletes who are bright and determined find the middle ground. PJ did that. He made a positive contribution to both his college community and his varsity sports team. He loved being a member of this small college community.
Sophomore and junior years came and went with little changes. PJ continued to work conscientiously at being both a student and an athlete and truly continued to enjoy college life.
Senior year was marked with the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Life changed for everyone. PJ was already away at school. He learned of those tragic happenings like most Americans, through the TV, radio and local newspapers. Although a Long Islander, the full impact of what occurred did not really hit him until he came home in early November.
Unfortunately, like many young people living beyond the metropolitan area, the impact of September 11th was not as intensely felt as it was by those living in the city, on Long Island or by those who had a relative or friend that was killed or missing. Intellectually PJ knew what happened and knew the seriousness of those terrorist attacks. He was also hundreds of miles away living in a small college town in the middle of nowhere. Right, wrong or indifferent, like many college athletes, he was preoccupied with his sport and managing his course work. He was distracted from the seriousness of those horrific events.
Unfortunately, his preoccupation and his youthful naivety led to a boyish prank that has forever changed his life and could ultimately destroy his life.
Like many college coeds, PJ had a serious girlfriend. They have a wonderful relationship. They are known for playing practical jokes on one another; always in good fun. On Halloween, PJ made a fatal decision with no forethought or reflection. He sent his beloved a Halloween card with white powder. Unfortunately, some of the white powder was seeping out of the envelope. That led postal authorities to seize the card, open it and read its content. In the present climate, the authorities reacted very aggressively and immediately. PJ was arrested and initially charged with terrorism. A ridiculously high bail was set. He was sent to the county jail for a week, where this twenty year old was treated very harshly. To say that this big, strapping athlete was scared to death would be an understatement.
Needless to say, because of the anthrax scare in Washington and New York, this made front page news in this small town and the lead story on the six o'clock news for days. The media tried and convicted him. The only thing they did not do was advocate for his public execution.
His college was also dragged into the center of this unfortunate circumstance. Instead of using due process, it seems that they became determined to use PJ as an example. Thus, all rules of due process and justice were suspended.
The day after he was jailed, PJ immediately submitted the paperwork to withdraw from school. The school denied his request, suspended him and ultimately, without any real hearing, they have expelled him. They seem determined to make him an example for all to look at, even if his rights as a student and a person have been compromised. The local district attorney was heard saying off the record that the school has not prosecuted student rapists as ardently as they have gone after PJ. (Now that's another matter.)
Remember, this alleged terrorist is a scholar athlete and a former captain of his college team. He comes from an exceptional family. Up until Halloween, he had an impeccable personal record as a caring human being.
Yes, he made an impulsive, immature choice and should be held accountable. He will admit without hesitation that he should be held accountable.
However, should his consequence be that his twenty year old life be destroyed, that his sentence be one worse than death?
As he awaits trial or a plea arrangement, he lives daily with two counts of federal felonies and the daily nightmare of this ordeal before him. He still runs the risk of a long term prison sentence.
Since November he has tried to keep his life in order. He has volunteered through his own initiative to do a number of things for the larger community, as he did in high school. He has attended and successfully completed summer classes at a local university. He has fruitlessly tried to enroll at a number of local colleges and universities, never even being given the courtesy of an interview, but being denied admission.
PJ has been charged, but not convicted of any crime. However, he is being treated by the higher education community like a leper. Is this truly justice?