Should There Be Sympathy For Steubenville Rapists?

Two teens accused of rape in Steubenville, Ohio were convicted and sentenced this week. Host Michel Martin talks to the Barbershop guys about how the victim — and the perpetrators — were treated in the press. Writer Jimi Izrael, political science professor Lester Spence, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar and Republican strategist R. Clarke Cooper discuss the week's news. ADVISORY: Please note, this conversation includes a discussion about rape and may not be suitable for all listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barber Shop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. He's with us from Chicago. From Baltimore, Lester Spence. He is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. Here in Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar and R. Clarke Cooper, Republican strategist. He's also an Army Reserve captain.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. We got Spence in here. I guess it's old man's day in the shop. Man, it's good to see you.

MARTIN: Oh, nice, nice.

LESTER SPENCE: Somebody's got to do it, baby.

MARTIN: Not for nothing. He's hundreds of miles away from...

SPENCE: Every gray hair is a victory.

IZRAEL: Right, right, right, right, right. Well, let's get things started. So the verdict is in for two high school football players accused of rape in Steubenville, Ohio. They were convicted of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl last summer during a night of drunken partying. Michel?

MARTIN: And I think this might be a good place to note that this might not be a conversation that's appropriate for everyone, so if there are little ears, you know, out there, maybe this is not the right time for them because we want to be able to talk about this fully.

And the facts are - and this is a complicated case, but the facts are that the young woman was so inebriated, she didn't know what had happened to her until she saw images of the assault online. The defendants were tried as juveniles. They were sentenced to a minimum of one year, one year and two years respectively, in juvenile detention.

Now, the victim's mother spoke in court after the verdict. We're not naming her because it's customary not to name the victims of sexual assault. That's a current kind of journalist protocol. Here's a clip.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Your decisions that night affected countless lives, including those most dear to you. You were your own accuser through the social media that you chose to publish your criminal conduct on.

MARTIN: Now, I also want to mention that the attorney general of Ohio, Mike DeWine, says he's convening a grand jury to examine possible charges against other people who may have tried to cover up or even failed to speak up about this crime. Jimi?

IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. A-Train.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Yes.

IZRAEL: Arsalan, I know you want to talk about this. You think the media handled the Steubenville case badly. Tell us what you mean.

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think that, you know, one of the things that we've seen in the aftermath of the Steubenville verdict is the fact that people - and, you know, CNN came under fire from social media activists, as well for - you know, showing some sort of sympathetic lens to the rapists in this case. You know, they talked about how they had, you know, promising football careers and things like that. And myself and I think many people around the country, women and men and people of all colors, found that patently offensive because essentially here you had two men - two boys who were found guilty by a court of law, not only of raping a young girl, I mean she was so inebriated, they literally carried her from party to party and then videotaped it on top of that.

So you know, when people talk about the fact that we live in a rape culture today, I tend to agree with that notion, partially because of the fact that this was videotaped. These people - the kids at the parties were watching it. They were laughing about it.

You know, there was a case recently in Connecticut, again with two athletes who are accused of raping several girls, and the victims are now getting bullied on social media because of, you know, the fact that they came forward against these athletes. And so it's really troubling, not only in terms of, you know, a particular sense of rape culture that we might be living in, but also sort of this aggrandizement that we have of athletes and different standards as opposed to, you know, if these were just two high school students who weren't star athletes who might have committed these heinous acts.

IZRAEL: Thank you, Arsalan. Dr. Spence - Lester, my dude, you know, we're both parents, man, and I don't know. I find myself in a really weird space with this, which I'll talk about later. But what do you think of Arsalan's idea of a so-called rape culture?

SPENCE: No. I understand what he's saying, but I disagree, if for no other reason, I mean if you think about this, if - let's say the technology existed 10, 15 years ago for the same type of crime to be committed. Most likely, they wouldn't have been found guilty. Right? And that's an important advance. I mean, we know they wouldn't have been found guilty in, like, 1980, 1985. So that's a really important advancement that we have to somehow acknowledge.

And we have to acknowledge that as deeply sexist as our nation still is, women in this country, compared to others - because I have to compare it - we have to compare this - women in this country still have the freedom to exist and carry themselves in ways where if they were in any other country they would be victimized. And I think that - so I understand what he's saying, but I disagree with that pretty strongly.

MARTIN: Captain Coop?

R. CLARKE COOPER: We need to look at the issue of complicity, the attorney general, when Mike DeWine said that he was going to further investigate, and also the lack of response. I mean there are certain elements of this case that are reminiscent of what happened in 1964, the famous Kitty Genovese case in Kew Gardens, where she was brutally murdered and no one responded to help her. You know, there are many folks who are probably complicit, students, turns out there are possibly administrators and teachers. There's a text message from Trent Maze, he was one of the football players that committed the crime. He stated that he felt that it had gotten taken care of by the coach because, quote, "he took care of it and was joking about it, so I'm not that worried." So we could find a much broader reach, kind of like spilled ink or spilled oil, where there are residents of Steubenville - adults - who were complicit in trying to cover this up.

IZRAEL: Well...

MARTIN: I just find this whole idea that - let me just say this whole...

IZRAEL: Sure.

MARTIN: ...idea that the media somehow shouldn't tell a complete story ridiculous. I mean you are the same person who complains when, you know, people of color - or if there are Muslims involved in acts of violence and they are labeled as terrorists, you know, it's like well, oh, we can't engage in labeling before we know all the facts. Well, we have to know all the facts. I mean I'm saying what this is rush to label people...

IFTIKHAR: No. But you never...

MARTIN: Is that an important part of our - it's a whole story...

IFTIKHAR: No, no, no. You're miss - you're...

IZRAEL: Hold on. Hold on. Hold on, Arsalan.

MARTIN: Well, no, let me finish my point. I mean it's a full story here. Our job is to tell full stories and I think that it's something important to understand. If these are top students, if these are people who are otherwise functional and they're still participating in this conduct, that's something that we need to know. I think we need to know more about why these acts occur. Why do people who are otherwise functional engage in such disturbing behavior? And I think that that's all part of the story. And the idea that you're going to criticize people for telling a full story is insane to me.

I mean, you know, Timothy McVeigh, who was the bomber, the Oklahoma City bomber, had received excellent ratings as a soldier when he was serving in the military. People said he was an excellent soldier, except that he was a racist. That's something I want to know. I want to know.

IZRAEL: You know, as a - thanks for that, Michel.

MARTIN: OK. OK.

IZRAEL: You know, what troubles me, I want to get in here as kind of as a parent and I hate these kinds of stories because I saw these scenarios growing up, and I have three boys and I have a girl. And what I never hear - and this isn't victim blaming, I don't want to be accused of that, but I never hear the personal responsibility piece. Because, you know, she was out with friends who knew that she was - my quote fingers are up about these friends because they're obviously whatever, but they weren't friends enough to help her out. But she had a reputation for going out and getting ridiculously drunk. Number one, where are the parents? Why is your 16-year-old, why does your 16-year-old have a reputation for going out and getting drunk?

The other piece, and the other piece that is, the reason we don't let children drink under age is because it requires a more responsibility than perhaps they're capable of. Certainly, she didn't ask for this, you know, that she didn't deserve this, but the reason you don't drink - the reason we don't allow our children out in the world to drink under age is because they can find themselves in these potentially dangerous situations. And when I saw this, I was - this is like a lot of hard lessons learned by everybody all around. And I'm sorry they had to learn these lessons like this but, you know, it's awful. It's hard. It's not fair, but it is life. And it's unfortunate. It's horrible. It's awful.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: But garbage in, garbage out.

IFTIKHAR: Jimi...

MARTIN: Ars...

IFTIKHAR: But the problem is, you know, you talk about personal responsibility, but never once in that statement that you just made did I hear you say, where were the parents of the two football players who should've told them, you never sexually force yourself upon anybody ever, especially if they're passed out? You know...

IZRAEL: I thought that was implied.

IFTIKHAR: No. But...

IZRAEL: I - you're right. Everybody, I think everybody - I think everybody's parents should be held accountable, both the boys' parents and the girl's parents. This is a ridiculous failure of parenting in my mind.

COOPER: All adults in the community, Jimi, I go back to the coach because again, if the coach gave an air of complicity or support, and when you've got students like Trent Mays saying that the coach had said he - that it would be taken care of and that not too worry, that's a problem because that's adults...

MARTIN: Well, yeah. That whole...

COOPER: ...that's adults protecting them.

MARTIN: But that whole thing of being taken care of, I mean isn't that the same language we heard around the Penn State or the Penn State scandal where these young boys, there was a pattern of abuse of these young boys...

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. It was a pandemic. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...where the attitude was it's being taken care of. And I don't know that is it so much that we have a quote/unquote "rape culture," which I don't agree with either. Is it that we have an idea when there are people of stature and there are institutions that we care about, that we don't feel a responsibility to intervene and to be sure...

SPENCE: It's a power culture.

MARTIN: ...at the same rules apply to everybody up - a power culture.

COOPER: Well, and...

SPENCE: Yeah. It's a power culture.

IFTIKHAR: If you look at the personal responsibility narrative that happens in many different cases, the personal responsibility narrative for the most part is always about the victim, you know, what kind of clothes she was wearing, what she was drinking. It's never don't rape people.

MARTIN: Or I did - but I think the point that Jimi was making is, are we turning it so far in the other direction that young women aren't being told that they need to protect themselves as well and take responsibility for their own actions as well as their friends. I think that that's what Jimi was saying.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: You have a responsibility to not get so drunk that you don't know what's happening to you, you know.

IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

IZRAEL: You're still the boss of you. You're still a guide to your ship, you know what I mean? And you have responsibility to yourself to take care of yourself first.

MARTIN: I hear what you're saying, though. But I'm hearing what you're saying. It's always been, you know, that that's the traditional way of thinking of it - that anything that's bad that happens to a girl is automatically her fault. I understand what you're saying, that that's not right.

IFTIKHAR: There's two...

MARTIN: Both things are true and we can't not say that both things aren't true.

IFTIKHAR: Right. But all I'm saying is that the narrative has been skewed in one direction.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly conversation with the Barbershop guys - writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, political science professor Lester Spence, and Republican strategist R. Clarke Cooper.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Well, this week marked 10 years since the beginning of the Iraqi war or, no, it's just Iraq, right? Yeah, it's Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld was secretary of defense at the beginning of the war. At a 2002 press review, months before the invasion, he was asked about whether Iraq was supporting terrorists groups or hiding weapons of mass destruction, and here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

DONALD RUMSFELD: There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns. The ones we do not know we don't know.

IZRAEL: Holy mackerel.

IFTIKHAR: Oh, man.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.

IZRAEL: I don't know what he just said.

COOPER: Oh, no, I do.

IFTIKHAR: No, Jimi, I think you know what he knows.

IZRAEL: Coop, you want first in on this?

COOPER: Hey, Jimi, I can spell it this way, is that he's referring to intelligence estimates. And part of what Secretary Rumsfeld was saying, intelligence today is just as imperfect as it was in the 18th century. It is a theory. It is an assessment. And we were not the only country to make the assessment that Saddam Hussein at the time was developing weapons of mass distraction, was harboring terrorists. In fact, his enemies, Iran, Tehran, had similar assessments. So not that this was a unilateral action. Remember, there were over a dozen Security Council resolutions in place, I think it was closer to 17, up until the lead up of Operation Iraqi Freedom. So this wasn't a unilateral move. It did turn out that there were not weapons of mass destruction in place and that is certainly - was an intelligence failure. But that was not a single source failure. I mean this was something that was an estimate and shared by our allies at the time. That was...

MARTIN: And it's also clear that Saddam Hussein wanted us to think he did have them.

COOPER: Correct. Especially he wanted Iran to think that he had them.

IZRAEL: Lester Spence, you're our poli-sci guy. Who's on first, man? What did this war do for the U.S.?

SPENCE: You talk about a culture of power at work. There were four statements that would end up being horribly wrong: that they had weapons of mass destruction, they're responsible for 9/11, the war would be fast and cheap, and we will be hailed as saviors.

IFTIKHAR: Word.

SPENCE: It was not only all wrong in hindsight, at the time people were saying that it was all wrong. And both the Democrats and the Republicans parties ignored it. We spent approximately conservative estimates, $1.7 trillion, 5,000 soldiers killed, 130,000 Iraqis killed, no weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq is unstable. I've been alive 43 years and I think looking back, this mistake is going to be the greatest mistake that I was kind of alive for. This was horrible.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IZRAEL: Wow. A-Train?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I was going to pick up Lester's microphone that he just dropped on the ground because that's absolutely right. You know, here we had a war that was built entirely upon a false premise. We went in looking for WMDs. We couldn't find a whiffle ball bat. You know, we had Dick Cheney going on NBC's "Meet the Press" in September 2003, and saying that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 and, you know, that led to false public opinion here in the United States, showing that 70 percent of Americans, several years after the Iraq war started, believed that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. As Lester mentioned, 4,400 U.S. troops have been killed, over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. It's cost nearly $2 trillion. It, and, of course, we all remember the mission accomplished banner that flew on top of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003, when George W. Bush, you know, basically, you know, strutted his stuff. And I think it will be seen as one of the biggest disasters of American foreign policy, you know, for the next 20 or 30 years.

MARTIN: Clarke, you have one more thing that you wanted to say.

COOPER: Well, I disagree wholeheartedly with Lester and Arsalan on that we are going to see that we, first of all, we did achieve our objectives there, we did do that. It's not yet to be determined as far as where Iraq is going. It is a nascent democracy is not the kind of democracy that we would create. It's their own.

But, yes. There certainly was a shift and I did, I marked three birthdays there. And I do recall the awakening we had in early '04, about a year in, less than a year in, and I'll read a quick sentence from my NCOIC. As an OIC, as a newly-minted lieutenant, I was very fortunate to serve with a very skilled Vietnam veteran who was my NCOIC, Sergeant Grist, and he wrote in his journal, his diary, which was published later: As we walked away from the vehicle, PSD, protective service detail, immediately went into a diamond-shaped perimeter around the general. When we started moving towards the school's entrance some of the Iraqis began to yell at us from the windows of all three floors of the buildings. The general leaned over to Cooper and asked if they were saying thank you. Cooper leaned back and said, no, sir. They are saying F you.

That is when, in early '04, we realized things had really changed rapidly because expectations were extremely high by the Iraqi populace. It's one of the lessons learned as far as moving forward for national security policy that in kinetic operations there needs to be a thoughtful plan for civil society, rule of law in post-kinetic operations. This was recognized by the Bush administration. It's been talked about on this 10th anniversary. But that encapsulated certainly that shift from celebration of liberation to realization of you broke it, we own it.

MARTIN: Do you feel good about your service, Clarke?

COOPER: Absolutely do. Absolutely do. I did a combat a tour and I went back to do capacity building for the Ministry of Interior, which is their federal law enforcement, and then later served as a section head at the embassy. So, yes, very proud of our work there and it's not done.

MARTIN: Whatever I think people feel about the war itself, I think all of us would agree in thanking you for your service and sacrificing your time to do this important work.

IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So I think I speak for everybody here. R. Clarke Cooper is a Republican strategist. He is a captain in the Army Reserve. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media, with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, with us from Baltimore. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. Arsalan and Clarke were here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

COOPER: Hu-ah.

SPENCE: Peace.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast - that's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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