Biting Back

      The Chicago Tribune reported this week that police officer Robert Rialmo, who intentionally shot and killed a college student and accidentally killed a bystander, filed a counterclaim against the victim’s estate.   Officer Rialmo claims that the deceased student’s conduct prompted the shooting and has caused him “extreme emotional trauma.” This, explained his lawyer, was a part of his client’s “normal grieving process.” Excuse me, Officer, but is this the new alternative to remorse?

      Over thirty years ago, Garrison Keillor wrote about remorse in The New Yorker, assuming the persona of a remorse counselor who believed that when people do bad things, “[t]hey should feel sorry for what they did and stop doing it.” “Remorselessness is a fundamental flaw, a crack in the social contract,” he complained, bemoaning the “parade” of “perfectly normal people” who had “less moral sense than God gave geese.” In the end, he boasted of the “remorse program” he created for assembly-line workers to improve job performance by promoting contrition for misconduct – like “excessive lunch breaks.”  I can’t say what provoked Keillor to satirize remorselessness, though he may have been reacting to the so-called “Twinkie defense” popularized by the trial of Dan White for the 1978 murder of George Moscone and Harvey Milk. While the term may have been a misnomer in a literal sense, it is fairly associated with creative alternatives to personal responsibility, and the decline of remorse. Officer Rialmo has taken this to new, aggressive territory.

      As any criminal defense lawyer will acknowledge, the value of remorse can’t be overstated in the moment of sentencing. It must be perceived as genuine, of course, as distinct from regret that the heavy hand of the law is about to fall on your neck. A remorseless individual is perceived as a derelict soul, and an ongoing threat to society, for he lacks the kind of feeling that would inhibit future criminal behavior. But given a person with less moral sense than a goose, it may be that the best defense is a good offense. Or such is Officer Rialmo’s apparent theory. The theory enables him to take action, in fact, compels action; whether or not it is wise or admirable is another question.

     Anyone who has felt extreme, persistent distress, sadness, guilt or shame over his or her own past conduct will understand viscerally the Latin roots of the word “remorse” – to bite again. Remorse is the emotional product of a regret surfacing to take another painful bite out of the present, to impinge on any pleasures of the moment, to remind us of past failings. It is sadness infused with guilt, a sense that we ought to have behaved differently under the circumstances. It presumes we made a knowing decision, or took an intentional action, and it was the wrong one. It encompasses the understanding that the past can’t be changed, that we can’t undo the wrong. It is the resilient residue of a misguided, hurtful choice. It resides in the memory of our heart and willfully intrudes on the present with only slight and unexpected provocation. It persists even in the face of the certitude that the wrong will never be repeated.

      Remorse is thus a powerful, relentless feeling, but it is not empowering. It can, indeed, be paralyzing. It is a “feeling which is more complicated, curdled and primeval” than mere guilt, wrote Julian Barnes in The Sense of an Ending.   Its “chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.” Remorse is a draining emotion. It accomplishes nothing in itself. It changes nothing in itself. But it may work its misery successfully by convincing the individual who feels it that he never wants to endure it again.

     And that is the hope: that remorse is painful enough so the person who committed the act which triggered remorse will want to avoid that consequence in the future. It does not, in other words, make for a better, more ethical person, but one who will be more cautious and self-protective. It serves as a deterrent of anti-social behavior, without muddling in morality or justifications. It is more reliable in this regard than mere guilt. Thus society has a great stake in remorse. And in response, remorse invites mercy rather than punishment, compassion rather than condemnation. Which is perhaps a circuitous route to making us all more humane.

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