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Shielding children before reprisal

Okay, we all love children and believe they should be protected. But recent, far-from-amusing events reminded me of the refrain of an amusing song from "Bye Bye Birdie":
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Okay, we all love children and believe they should be protected. But recent, far-from-amusing events reminded me of the refrain of an amusing song from "Bye Bye Birdie":

What's the matter with kids today?

I'm talking about two kids in particular: Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, the teenager who doodled his way through the first few days of his capital murder trial for the sniper slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, and pseudo-kid Michael Jackson, charged Wednesday with multiple acts of child molestation.

Jackson's birth certificate says he's 45. But this 45-year-old declares, "I'm Peter Pan," owns a home featuring amusement park rides, and explains his penchant for lying in bed with children during sleepovers in terms that my third-grade son and his buddies might use: "Why can't you share your bed? . . . It's very loving. Because what's wrong with sharing a love?"

On second thought, even boys of 8 don't describe sleepovers like that. Still, Jackson clearly feels the middle-age thing doesn't apply to him and would have us accept it.

Human behavior, like justice, isn't simple. Neither is the death penalty. This irrevocable punishment has been applied more often to poor and minority felons, as if certain skin colors or backgrounds render people more deserving of death. DNA testing has proven that innocent people are sentenced to die. Most world governments forbid the punishment.

Religion-wise, the penalty seeks to appropriately punish those who've usurped God's power by taking a life. But how can such punishment be applied without the government usurping the same power? As one reluctant to substitute her judgment for the Almighty's, I can't support it.

Just the same, if John Muhammad is sentenced to death, I won't be marching in protest.

My feelings about Malvo are different. I squirmed when, after his arrest, U.S. officials shopped around for the jurisdiction most likely to put a high-schooler to death. I squirmed more when people explained their comfort with his possible execution with, "A 17-year-old knows right from wrong."

I knew they were right. But could it be that simple?

Raised by loving parents, Elizabeth Smart, 16, knows right from wrong. Yet she was so controlled by her captors that she remained in harm's way even when she had chances to escape. Having a son Malvo's age, I know newly minted 18-year-olds in a variety of shades and income brackets. I can't imagine any of them shooting BB guns at stray cats, let alone gunning down innocent strangers.

But none of them grew up like Malvo -- torn from and abandoned by parents, spirited across borders, moving from homeless shelter to strangers' apartment to indigent hotel.

None of them ever had a "mentor" like John Muhammad.

I asked Waldorf clinical counselor Mollie Thorn, a Prince George's County school counselor for 15 years before entering private practice, how the "knows right from wrong" argument applies to kids like Malvo.

"I think Malvo did horrible things and at some level knows what's horrible," Thorn, 56, said. At the same time, "every single kid is seeking connection to others. Every kid wants to feel dignity and worth and competence." When such desires have a healthy focus, "we all win. But when a kid gets hooked up with someone like Muhammad . . . the movement toward connection and being capable is totally skewed."

With Muhammad, Malvo finally belonged -- to what Thorn calls "a cult of two."

"If I'm a kid who has no parents there supporting me, no friends to rely on and no money, what am I going to do if some nice man decides I'm really special, nurtures me and acts like he loves me?" she asked. "Society hasn't taken me in and cared for me. . . .

"When children are vulnerable, their judgment becomes impaired."

Thorn remembers her terror last October when her mother frequented Aspen Hill area locations where sniper victims died. But she can't help wondering: "How will killing this kid help you or me or even the families of the victims? Do we think fear is going to make us safer?"

Not as much as we think it's going to make us feel better. It's comforting to think that someone -- no, two someones -- will pay: For our fear. For those precious, irreplaceable lives.

In her way, Thorn agrees. "Do I think we need to be protected from him [Malvo]? Yes."

Which brings me back to Jackson. His fans hate to hear it, but children may need protection from him -- even children whose parents are too stupid or celebrity-struck to provide it. I don't know if this gifted, troubled man -- yes man, Jackson never forfeited his rights or requested "adult supervision" when developing his lucrative business deals -- is a child molester.

But every child should be protected. Who knew or cared about Malvo's tragic journey before we experienced its horrific effects? But millions of us watched Jackson grow up. We sympathized with his poignant claims that no one saved him from an overworked childhood and beatings from his father.

Does that mean we should ignore that misguided adults still leave children alone with him? Or that this middle-aged Peter Pan may not be as innocent as he claims to be?

As one who admired him, I hope he is.

Last October, I despised Malvo before knowing anything about him. With each new victim, with each jittery stroll toward my son's elementary school -- my heart thundering, my child's hand clasped tight -- I despised him more.

Yet he, too, deserves protection -- from the death penalty. He deserves years and years and more years in prison: to regret the agony he inflicted, to miss the freedom he forfeited. Maybe even to change.

Even if it doesn't make us feel better.