‘American Idol’ for Scooter, ‘Charlie Rose’ for Paris

Opinion

By Leonard Fein

Published July 11, 2007, issue of July 13, 2007.
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First, we should give it a new and more contemporary name. “Devil’s Island” is simply too yesterday.

We’ll come to the naming question in a moment; first, the rationale. Plainly, we need a special place where we can dump selected miscreants while they serve out their sentences (for some, their paragraphs). These are the sort who do not readily mix well with more conventional criminals.

Often, they’ve been in the public eye, and their notoriety would complicate prison routine, much as might, say, Jon Stewart or Bill Maher at a convocation of the College of Cardinals or George W. Bush at a rally for alumni of the Air National Guard. In a separate facility, their specific punishments could be tailored to their particular characteristics, thus making their genuine rehabilitation more likely.

I have in mind just now three recent lawbreakers whose diddled sentences became the subjects of widespread attention and considerable controversy: Paris Hilton, Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Moshe Katzav. (Two-thirds of the three are Jewish; the third is quintessentially not.)

Devil’s Island — Ile du Diable — is off the coast of French Guiana. It is 34.6 acres small (or 138.4 dunams) and is mainly remembered as the place where Alfred Dreyfus spent more than four miserable years, March 1895 to September 1899. It was in use as a prison from 1852 to 1946, and more than 80,000 people, mostly men, were sent there, and very many died there.

These days, it has become something of a tourist attraction, although the weather is unpleasant and the topography hardly memorable. In no way can it be compared to a typical federal prison in the United States, where, had his sentence not been commuted, we may suppose Libby would have been sent, nor to the Los Angeles jail where Hilton’s on-again, off-again, on-again time (for parole violation) was served, nor, one presumes, to the sort of prison to which Katzav would have been sent had there been no plea bargain sparing the Israeli ex-president imprisonment.

So let us imagine that instead of the backing and forthing that attended the sentencing of the three, they’d upon conviction (or, in Katzav’s case, confession) have been dispatched to this old-new facility, perhaps given by France to the United States as a token of the esteem in which the French hold us.

There’s not much to do on Devil’s Island. Dreyfus, during his years there, taught himself English, and Katzav and Hilton might choose to follow that precedent. But their days ought be marked by penitential programs, and here is where the advantage of individual case management becomes apparent.

Say, for example, that Libby is daily required to watch 16 hours of “Dancing With the Stars.” Libby might challenge the punishment as “cruel and unusual,” thus in violation of the Constitution. And we may say straight out that it would indeed qualify as unusual.

But it is surely less cruel than the perjury of which Libby was found guilty. And, for a man allegedly of intellectual pursuits, a man given to the world of affairs, a man, we’re told, of limitless arrogance, watching “Dancing With the Stars” — or, perhaps, “American Idol” — would be real punishment, not the country-club kind so often experienced by white-collar lawbreakers.

The phrase “world of affairs” is susceptible to a meaning quite different from that world as inhabited by Libby, a devoted family man. The other meaning is the one quite relentlessly pursued by Katzav.

In the end, because of the plea bargain that reduced the charges against him, allegations of rape (by two complainants) were dropped from the indictment, leaving “only” sexual harassment, forcible indecent assault and harassing a witness. Some 15,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the plea bargain, which is now on appeal and according to which Katzav will, upon confession to the remaining charges, receive only a suspended sentence.

The ex-president has all along insisted on his innocence and his wife and family have stood by their man. However the case is ultimately resolved, it now appears likely that the country will be spared a trial most tawdry, with testimony by at least some of the eight women who have accused Katzav of rape or sexual assault, perhaps among them complainant “A,” who at a recent press conference called Katzav “a pervert and a serial sex offender.”

Rehabilitation on Devil’s Island might have been a more productive solution. Though Katzav can scarcely be thought a party animal (except, perhaps, of the Likud variety), he is plainly a lusty fellow and it is not much of a stretch to imagine him developing a carnal interest in Hilton.

That would be a strictly enforced no-no; the yes-yes should be enforced watching of those mindless “runway” shows featured on cable channels, endless parades of lanky models who look as bored as one imagines the viewers must be. There is likely no better antidote to an excess of lust than a surfeit of such.

And Paris Hilton? Here the rehabilitative answer virtually leaps from the screen: Charlie Rose. Let Hilton be required to watch Charlie Rose again and again and then once more. Few experiences can be thought as chastening as that, and here “chastening” can be understood in its multiple meanings.

I confess that Devil’s Island, even if renamed, is not necessary to this take on how better to fit punishment to crime. In fact, as I think about it, we might prefer to take a page from Vice President Dick Cheney’s book and have all this happen in “an undisclosed location,” the very location where we may imagine Cheney and his superior might be invited to spend their post-impeachment years.

Ah, to plan the rehabilitative therapy for them.


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