Searching for a Moral to Story of Immorality

Halloween came and went, but Marion Salmon Hedges wasn’t able to hand out the hundreds of dollars worth of candy she purchased for the underprivileged children who annually visit her Manhattan neighborhood.

Instead, she has spent the past 10 days in a medically induced coma at New York’s Harlem Hospital Center.

Mrs. Hedges was the victim of a “prank” by two 12-year-old boys who apparently thought it would be funny to drop a shopping cart from a fourth-story walkway connecting a parking garage to the East River Plaza shopping center.

On Friday in family court, the boys pleaded not guilty to first-degree felony assault charges. The attorney for one of the boys argued for his release to his family pending trial on the grounds that he didn’t mean to harm anyone when he pushed the cart off the skyway. Unmoved, the judge remanded both boys to juvenile custody and ordered them to appear again on Nov. 18.

This is a story seeking a moral.

By all accounts, Mrs. Hedges is truly a remarkable woman. A wife and mother of two teens (her 13-year-old son was with her when she was hit by the cart), she is widely known for her energetic service to her community. She sits on numerous boards and committees, is a leader in the Junior League of New York and works as a real estate agent.

Michael Hedges, her husband, when asked whether he is angry with the boys responsible for his wife’s near-fatal injuries, is quoted as saying, “They’re not adults. They’re children, and children who have been left on their own without supervision.”

The inexplicably compassionate Mr. Hedges apparently believes the boys themselves are victims and therefore are not responsible for their actions.

So is the moral of the story: Children cannot be expected to know right from wrong? Or is it that children living in difficult socioeconomic circumstances are typically unsupervised and therefore not taught right from wrong?

Surveillance tapes reveal that a 14-year-old passer-by stopped the boys’ initial attempt to toss a cart over the walkway, telling them not to do it. But after they relinquished the cart to him and he ran away, the boys found another one and successfully pitched it onto the unsuspecting Mrs. Hedges.

So perhaps the moral of the story has to do with defining some magic age for moral discernment. If 12 is too young, maybe 14 is reasonable.

Mrs. Hedges‘ attackers, known in court documents as Jeovanni R. and Raymond H. because of their ages, live in the very neighborhoods Mrs. Hedges tries to help through her volunteer efforts.

At least one report quotes a neighbor as saying Jeovanni is the “baddest boy” in his public housing building, which might explain why he was able to sneak out of the house and go to the mall without permission.

But Jeovanni’s grandmother, Ana Cespedes, 89, told the Daily News that the boy’s mother is a good mom who does supervise him. Ms. Cespedes said her grandson should stay in juvenile detention because “he doesn’t obey when someone tells him to do the right thing.”

Perhaps the moral is something like: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Many child advocates have opined that 12-year-old children in search of a thrill should not experience long-term consequences for a “prank” that wasn’t intended to cause what may be a lifelong traumatic brain injury.

This is what happens when we lose our moral compass. We look for explanations for what essentially is a story about immorality.

We’re a society that is loath to label children good or bad, and which opts not to focus on right and wrong.

Ultimately, then, we’ll likely get this conclusion: The city of New York clearly should require private developers to put up higher barriers on walkways so this sort of thing cannot happen again.

(© 2011 Marybeth Hicks)

Marybeth Hicks is a columnist for The Washington Times and founder and editor of Ontheculture.com.