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IRREGULAR TIMESSpare the Child Asks:
Will America Become a Refuge for Torture?


Physicians recommend that people perform regular mental exercises as they age in order to keep their minds energetic and flexible. Some people use chess or crossword puzzles for such exercise. As for myself, I spend my time trying to figure out the logic used by parents who claim that they beat their children as a matter of principle. I find the task quite energizing, especially considering the amount of mental stretching required to accomodate the child-beater's point of view.

A case in point is the problem faced by United States immigration officials who are being asked to decide whether a group of fundamentalist Christians from Canada should be granted asylum on the basis of their desire to break Canadian child abuse laws. This summer, over 100 members of the conservative Church of God congregation from Aylmer, Ontario moved across the Canadian border to Ohio and Indiana after child welfare workers in Ontario took temporary custody of seven children because of allegations that the children were being physically abused. The group claims that the Canadian government is persecuting them by attempting to prevent the corporal punishment of their children with switches and paddles.

United States law makes it clear that asylum can be given only after a credible fear of the threat of torture or other serious persecution upon return to the country of origin is proven. The irony of the case of the Aylmer fundamentalists is that the self-described refugees are seeking asylum in order to protect their ability to torture and persecute their own children with impunity!

Are the terms "torture" and "persecution" too strong to describe the corporal punishment meted out by the Aylmer fundamentalists to their children? Not at all. The definition of torture is the use of pain for the purpose of coercion or punishment. What other purposes but coercion and punishment are there for spanking, whipping, paddling or otherwise beating children? Parents strike their children in order to punish disobedience and to coerce them into obedience through the threat of future pain. If corporal punishment is not performed with coercion or punishment in mind, then it is completely arbitrary and the source of even more terror for the children who are subject to it.

To persecute means nothing more than to oppress or harass with ill-treatment. If the subjection of children to the constant threat of painful physical assault by adults who are usually at least twice their size and who have legal custody over the children does not constitute ill-treatment, I don't know what does. Unless our legal system recognizes painful physical attack as a serious form of persecution, our entire population will be helpless against assault at the hands of private citizens or governmental officials. The case of the Aylmer fundamentalists has exposed a gap in the protection of American citizens from the persecution of physical assault. Unless this gap is closed, our legal system and the society upon which it is based may soon begin to unravel.

The Aylmer fundamentalists complain about unfair treatment at the hands of Canadian authorities in order to justify their flight across an international border. Yet, when the fundamentalists attempt to coerce their own children through punishments designed to inflict physical pain, they offer no opportunity for legal recourse, let alone escape. When adults are treated in such a manner, no one hesitates to condemn the violent act as a crime, or even a human rights abuse. However, when it comes to the treatment of children, the use of pain as a tool of coercion and punishment is described by many as a noble practice. The Aylmer fundamentalists can try to hide behind the euphemism of "discipline" if they want, but their true motives are laid plain by their equation of basic child abuse law with persecution.

It is not persecution to prevent the powerful from controlling the weak through the deliberate infliction of pain. Rather, it is the duty of a democratic government to do so. If the United States grants asylum to the Aylmer fundamentalists, it will turn international law on its head, providing protection for torturers from the sovereign governments who seek to control illegal behavior through reasonable means.

How embarassing, that the United States is regarded as a safe haven for people who wish to beat their own children without governmental interference. For the sake of the dignity of our nation and the safety of children within our own borders as well as abroad, the Aylmer fundamentalists must be promptly returned to Canada to deal with the humane child welfare laws there. Furthermore, to prevent another shameful display of our nation's disregard for the welfare of children, the legal tolerance for the physical abuse of children in the United States must come to an end. The corporal punishment of children is scientifically, legally, and ethically insupportable. It is high time that our nation recognizes that torture is torture, no matter what the relationship between the torturer and the tortured.



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