Now that Nafissatou Diallo has taken the extraordinary step of telling the public her version of what Dominique Strauss-Kahn did to her at the Sofitel Hotel in clinical and tearful detail, I found myself revisiting the many dispiriting thoughts that have come to me regarding this case. When I first read the New York Times report of what happened, I was revolted. And so I read with approval all the criticism of the blinding arrogance and staggering stupidity of powerful men like Dominique Strauss-Kahn who had abused their position and taken advantage of women. I felt a kind of moral satisfaction when I saw a picture of a crowd of hotel maids (mostly minority and I assumed poorly paid) assembled in front of the courthouse yelling "shame" at Strauss-Kahn when he appeared for his arraignment.
Then it turned out the accuser was an "unreliable witness." She had lied on her application for asylum, she had lied on her income tax returns, she had been less than forthright about her boyfriend in jail, and she had told conflicting stories about what happened after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn. She was a liar, the consensus emerged but, as commentators who were still sympathetic to her pointed out, that did not mean that she was lying about what Strauss-Kahn did to her in the hotel room. Yet, even as I continued to entertain that possibility, I felt the force of the outraged reaction of the French to what they saw as a barbaric legal system, inflamed and abetted by a salacious, rumor-mongering press—and I understood. I cringed as I thought about the infamous "perp walk" (that awful little phrase) and felt the hollowness, as I have often felt before, of our vaunted legal principle of the presumption of innocence.
From there, and before I could help it, I felt myself being pushed into a familiar and discomfiting inner dialogue that starts with acknowledging the distressing truth that I somehow manage to live, as do most people, as if I did not know about the odious barbarisms of our legal system. The leering spectacle of the "perp walk" is the least of it. There is the matter of the accused who are put behind bars in large holding cells with other alleged criminals with no modicum of privacy often for days at a time until they are arraigned. And of course this indignity is nothing when compared with the intimidating, violent, dehumanizing conditions that convicted criminals are notoriously made to suffer on a daily basis. Which made me think of the even more extreme brutality, the disgraceful lawlessness of "extraordinary rendition," Abu-Ghraib, and Guantanomo. And this returned me to the question of why those who are presumed innocent until proven guilty–and here I wasn’t thinking of alleged terrorists but rather people without criminal records who must be held somewhere before they are arraigned–are not provided with conditions that at least approximate, say, a college dormitory or hospital room.
Which prompted me to reflect on how we, as a society, treat the most vulnerable among us. The military reverberations of the word "vulnerable"–unguarded, unfortified, defenseless–as well as its more visceral associations–exposed, naked–I felt intensely as I thought about the hard attitude rampant today that everyone is on his or her own, not only poor families struggling to survive (cuts to welfare), but also children (cuts to education) and the elderly (cuts to Medicare and Social Security); and the ruthless attitude equally rampant today that no one owes anybody anything, that any "sacrifice" in the name of the public good, of the world we share together, our commonwealth, is too much to ask of anyone.