A Victim As Person Of The Year?

At year's end news organizations like to mark time by doing such things as selecting, and commenting upon, the year's top stories. Some, like Time magazine, vote for a person of the year, as it did in selecting Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, as ther 2010 Person of the Year. The New Haven Register, by contrast, selected a crime victim as this year's most notable person: It is an odd and troubling choice.

The 2007 slaying of a mother and her two children in Cheshire, Connecticut, has become a part of the national psychic landscape, and last year's trial of one of the assailants, Steven Hayes, transformed New Haven, the site of the trial, into a media mecca. Reporters lined up hours before the trial began to claim one of the seats reserved for the press. Television cameras hovered outside the courthouse for daily shots of the dramatis personae. The star of all this was the sole survivor of the home invasion, Dr. William Petit, Jr., who succumbed to the national mania to make icons of victims by submitting to an interview on the Oprah Winfrey show. Dr. Petit is the Regislter's person of the year.

The distance between Mark Zuckerberg and William Petit may not be all that great. Both aspired to teach us to see in different ways. Zuckerberg's Facebook connects strangers by means of the social media networking, something new under the Sun. Dr. Petit wants us to behold the transforming message of love, a force and message as old as the message that God is love. But Dr. Petit came by his heroic stature by accident; he had the mixed fortune of surviving the assault that resulted in the slaughter of his family. His struggle with survivor's guilt makes him less a profile of everyman, than a man every man pities.

In the wake of his family's death, Dr. Petit set up a foundation to honor their memory. The foundation has raised $1.8 million in charitable contributions. It honors the memory of his wife and daughters by contributing to the things they appreciated and valued: it has helped to eduacte young women in the sciences, has assisted those suffering from chronic illness, and has come to the aid of those suffering from the effects of domestic violence. These are worthy goals.

"We must be the change we wish to see in the world," Dr. Petit told a reporter. The word;s are those of Mohandas Ghandi. But Dr. Petit did not look much like Gandhi during the past few years, as he stalked the state in pursuit of the death penalty for Steven Hayes, who was duly tried and sentenced to death this year. I suspect the doctor will be as persistent in his pursuit of the death of Joshua Komisarjevsky, who will be tried in 2011.  There is something un-Ghandilike in this atavistic death vigil. Indeed, blood lust and revenge are old and primitive emotions. Serving them hardly bespeaks becoming the sort of change we envision; it is rather, a retrograde celebration of the very sort of primitive sludge that set Hayes and Komisarjevsky on their bloody rampage. Forgive me for not celebrating this return to the cave.

Lawmakers in Connecticut voted to repeal the death penalty last year. But N. Jodi Rell vetoed that legislation. When she did so, she cited the horror of the Cheshire case as a reason for state-killing. Death penalty opponents sighed in despair. Connecticut was poised to join her neighbors who have put aside killing as a form of justice. The United States remains alone among democratic nations as a killer of its own people.

But Dr. Petit became the change he wanted to see in the world. He lobbied for death. The wonder of it all is that he persuaded so many.

It is an ancient maxim in the law that no one can be a judge in his own case. The passions rub too raw when our own interests are affected. We have banned private prosecution, eliminated the posse, and set up a professional criminal justice system to attempt to put some distance between the claims of reason and the cries of passion. The victims' rights movement seeks to push the pendulum back to the old days of the hue and cry. Those undone by sorrow are no longer content with our care, tender regard and support. They now behave as though they are entitled to revenge, and the fight is on to persuade the rest of us to let them have it.

I wonder about a society that takes its moral bearings from the most injured among us. Dr. Petit's cry is the roar of rage and sorrow that comes of a wound deeper than I can comprehend. If ever a man was undone by grief, I suspect it is he.  But for all he is suffered, I do not believe we owe him or his family a death or two. Just how did the most injured among us become a hero? What does it say about us that what inspires is rage?

It did not suprise me to learn that Dr. Petit found his way to Oprah. Or, really, that a local newspaper would name him person of the year. There is a hunger for emotion in the world that victims and pity fills, if only for a passing moment. But I worry, really, about a culture that transformed emotionally damaged people into today's matinee idols.

Mark Zuckerberg taught us to see one another and ourselves in new and creative ways. Dr. Petit draped new rhetoric over ancient emotions and taught us simply that displacement of rage can tap something deep within us all. Five years from now, we will still be sorting out what social networking means. Dr. Petit, however, will be long forgotten, replaced by the other victims of other horrors in our seemingly insatiable quest for new outrages over which we can tongue-cluck in unison. The Register's decision to name him person of the year for 2010 looks an awful lot like surrendering to the lowest common denominator. Call 2010 a depressing sort of year.                                             

Comments: (29)

  • Person of year?
    I agree with pattis that the fact that a person was victim of hideous crime does not qualify that person for an award that is usually based on achievement, positive or negative. It is more a Register award for selling newspapers.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 4:34 am by champ
  • Dr. Petit
    I was quite surprised that Dr. Petit accepted the award. I would not have, if I had the misfortune to be him. Don't know why, but it changes my view of him.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 5:05 am by EBB
  • thanks
    Thanks for this commentary opposing victim joining perpetrators to take us away from our humanity. How can we continue to hope for advances in the treatment of mental illnesses?
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 5:24 am by citizen
  • Petit Award
    I agree. A victim of a crime does not qualify them for that award. Albeit a most heinous crime, I just can't put the two together.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 5:52 am by Alocasia
  • Person of the Year
    Maybe when we stop letting career criminals back on the streets to continuously increase the severity of their crimes,will the rest of society not have rely on the death penalty as the only choice left to deal with these low lifes. Most muderers don't start out with murder being the first crime. Usually start with drugs, then robbery, then assault. Murder is the next step as they keep getting let loose back on the streets. A few less defense attorneys and a few more prisons would be a good start.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 5:53 am by bball fan
  • revenge
    So what's wrong with revenge? Isn't that the basis for law? Maybe what we need are fewer lawyers.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 6:27 am by Conan
  • The Death Penalty
    I really have a problem with paying to feed, clothe and house animals who commit murder. Keep the death penalty. Maybe some of these societal degenerates will think twice about committing murder.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 7:03 am by Robert
  • Norman Pattis
    Dr. Petit deserves to be named Person of the Year. He is an outstanding person and so was his family. He has turned his tragedy into a way to help other people less fortunate while honoring the memory of his beloved family. Of course the murderers deserve the death penalty. No one should pass judgement on Dr. Petit unless they've walked in his shoes. Norman Pattis should be ashamed of himself. I am appalled by his callous attitude.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 8:13 am by SusieQ
  • Do you remember?
    You have to give him credit for the way he has handled himself with dignity and has managed to turn out several initiatives that were positive. Does Atty Pattis remember just a few years ago when one of his clients was racing his car up and down his driveway. You were pretty rattled and you were quoted in the paper after his arrest as hoping the courts would lock up your client for a long stint in jail. Do you see the comparison I'm trying to make here?
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 8:31 am by KR
  • Misinformed
    @ Robert:
    You realize it costs more to put someone to death in this state than to keep them in jail right? The number of appeals that must be accommodated insures that more is spent defending the initial sentence than in just life without possibility of parole.
    With all that said, I do feel sorry for Dr. Petit. I can't even begin to imagine what he's been through. I'm not sure that makes him Person of the Year though,,,
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 9:32 am by Specter
  • Dr. Petit
    I agree with Mr. Pattis. As for Dr. Petit, yes it's terrible what happen to him and his family, but playing the victim is less and less believable everytime he's on TV! Why Dr. Petit? Worse crimes have happened before and will happen after! Something tells me he enjoys the attention!
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 9:34 am by Anonymous
  • Odd and troubling?
    Mr. Pattis, the reason for choosing Petit is simply one of character, rather than achievement. What Petit went through is every man's nightmare, and the fact that he didn't crack shows an unusually strong will. You may disagree with the choice, but there is nothing "odd" nor "troubling" about it. Lawyers are sneaky, so is your problem with the choice more about the fact that when a victim is honored, the perpetrator is equally as hated, and then that makes defense lawyers look worse in the public eye?
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 9:44 am by Al
  • Unlike Pattis,Petit is More than Worthy
    Unlike Pattis, Petit is More than Worthy
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 10:25 am by Unlike Pattis,Petit is More than Worthy
  • seriously
    Um, the creator of Facebooks only motivation was money. Not some altruistic reasons suck as a global get together. Please-money was motivation-I guess if you worship money rather than character-then Petit would be the wrong choice. But then again, your a defense attorney who feels jail for pedophiles is too harsh, character is clearly not something you look up to.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 11:22 am by Erin
  • self aggrandising
    Pattis is bent out of shape because he did not win the award. Perhaps Hayes should have won it?
    What an effete bag of gas this guy is.
    Bet he spends half his day preening in front of a mirror.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 12:27 pm by Sammi
  • sick
    i think its pretty disgusting to use Dr. Petits tragedy to further your anti capital punishment agenda. thats all this is article is, masked in fake sympathy for Dr.Petit. you kill innocent people you get killed, its easy to claim an eye for an eye is wrong when you arent the victim. Dr Petit is a true hero, not a sleazy ambulance chasin defense lawyer
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 1:10 pm by MPB
  • Cheshire
    Nom. take bath. Anyhow, this thing about a state sponsored murder is appaling. Why must I spend my tax money for murder? Jodi Rell was an incompetent idiot. She soulld be put dowwn like a norwegenen rat. She dosen't know what town she is is, But poor Dr. Whatever. Why can he commit murder? He should be put down like the anamial he is.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 1:31 pm by Stringer Bell
  • Conundrum
    Character assasination,sarcasmand snide remarks from a
    lawyer? Quelle surprise!
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 3:51 pm by Tina
  • Clueless
    Perhaps Oprah found her way to Dr Petit? Could it be that the Foundation that has raised 1.8 million dollars for charitable causes caught her attention? Rest assured,Dr Petit will not be forgotten,nor will he be pitied.He will be known and admired for his ability to stay human and focused on everyone's right to live in safety in their own homes.
    Perhaps rage is the inspiration that drives the Author, or some sort of perverted jealousy?
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 4:14 pm by Madame CFG
  • Measure of a Man
    The full measure of Dr Petit as a human being is not "victim". You are grossly misinformed.
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 5:25 pm by TF
  • Dr. Petit - Person of the Year
    Methinks Mr. Pattis may be somewhat miffed because he did not get a crack at getting Hayes off and life in prison instead of the death penalty? Hubris...hubris...hubris...
    Posted on December 30, 2010 at 12:38 am by WOW
  • Dr. Petit
    The state prosecutor pursued the death penalty in this state. With a state that has a death penalty, if not this crime, then which crime? To say that a person single determined how this case was prosecuted is ridiculous. Dr. Petit has given us all a lesson in strength and grace.
    Posted on December 30, 2010 at 4:17 am by PM
  • hello?
    you're a lawyer? A defense laywer I presume.....you are as much the slime as the slime you fight for. Grasnted not all defense are slime....but to actually post what an idiot you sound like.......shame on the bar for ever passing you. Just goes to show you are pissed because you did not get gov Rell to keep the death penaly a law. Next time keep the crap in you head.
    Posted on December 30, 2010 at 5:04 am by Lori L
  • Dr. Petit
    What better man to be Person of the Year than a man who was faced with the worse nightmare anyone could even imagine and handles that nightmare with grace and courage. Then in the name of his beloved family helps so many people in the country. He is a hero and someone we should all learn from. Dr. Petit deserves justice for Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela. The essence of evil deserves no mercy. You Norm Patis should be praying for Dr. Petit not rediculing him. You should be ashamed of yourself.
    Posted on December 30, 2010 at 5:35 am by Sheryl
  • Dr Pettit
    May you suffer one one hundreth of the loss this man suffered, THEN and only then can you judge him, till then please do the free world a favor and shut up. I hope you have a Happy New Year and I wish you and your family no ill, But if you do lose a loved one to the type of violence this man suffered then I would love to hear your blatherings and hand wringing
    Posted on December 30, 2010 at 5:50 am by Joe Garrett
  • Dr. Petit
    What better person for Person of the year than Dr. Petit? I think that it is disgusting for Mr. Pattis to use this public forum to even bring up his judgemental ignorance! Dr. Petit has shown grace & strength through his own living hell! More people could learn how to be upstanding members of our society! Dr. Petit has nothing to gain for himself, only to uphold the wishes of his beautiful family! Congratulations Dr. Petit!!! You deserve it!!!
    Posted on December 30, 2010 at 6:52 am by Melissa G
  • Thank you
    Thanks to all for being good and faithful readers.
    Posted on December 30, 2010 at 12:24 pm by Norm Pattis
  • Are you kidding
    I couldn't even read past the part about "Dr. Petit stalking the state"....really, this person who wrote this must be some kind of a monster himself...we should berate Dr. Petit for wanting justice against the animals that took his family? Should we let them out so they can kill other people too? Poor Steven Hayes, Poor Joshua...boo hoo
    Since you didn't finish the piece let me do so for you. Killing isn't justice. Period. Savages think so, and people destroyed by grief. Dr. Petit belongs in the latter category; you, apparently, in the former. Merry Christmas, or should I, a monster, simply say "Boo!"?
    Posted on December 20, 2011 at 7:40 pm by Dayna Ollero
  • Are you kidding
    I couldn't even read past the part about "Dr. Petit stalking the state"....really, this person who wrote this must be some kind of a monster himself...we should berate Dr. Petit for wanting justice against the animals that took his family? Should we let them out so they can kill other people too? Poor Steven Hayes, Poor Joshua...boo hoo
    Posted on January 10, 2012 at 6:25 pm by Dayna Ollero

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