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Robert Koehler

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The Human Franchise

Posted: 01/29/09 12:13 PM ET

It was the young woman's desolate face -- her mug shot -- that pulled me into the story.

Now that is a pretty mug shot . . . lol. Burn baby Burn!

I touch the edges of this story, this tragedy, gingerly, wishing, oh Lord, that I were in more certain territory. A 22-year-old woman named Melissa Calusinski is in jail right now, held on $5 million bond, charged with first-degree murder. Up until two weeks ago, she was an employee of the Minee Subee Daycare Center in Lincolnshire, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

This girl is surely evil. . . . I wish Illinois (had) a death penalty.

On Jan. 14, some of the toddlers were being rowdy after eating snacks. As she was cleaning off one of them -- a 16-month-old boy named Benjamin -- she apparently lost her temper and, according to newspaper accounts, slammed him to the floor. The boy crawled to a nearby bouncy chair, his favorite chair, clutching his blanket and pacifier. He curled up in it, and there he died.

That's the story. Two minutes' duration, maybe. An unspeakable tragedy, compressed into 293 words in the Chicago Sun-Times a few days later. "To see a world in a grain of sand . . ." This is close. The horror keeps reverberating. I clutch my own family around me. My daughter spent many hours in daycare when she was little. She is now 22, making her way in the world. Walk gently in life, I tell myself; don't act on the certainties fueled by anger, fueled by the reptile brain.

What I wonder is why my protective impulse flows so much to the accused killer. No, that's not quite true. What I wonder is why I'm so hesitant to say so publicly when what seems clear is not that this empathy in some way exonerates her or equates the tragedy of her shattered future with the death of the child and the grief of his family, but rather, that the two tragedies are inseparable, and that "justice" may be served by their separation, but healing cannot be.

"I pray she gets a lot of prison time, she gets killed in there, or better yet she kills herself!! save the people some money! and that she dreams of her actions to this priceless child of God she murdered every time she closes her eyes in sleep!! rot in hell Melissa!!"

Vigilantism is illegal; lynch mobs are part of our forgotten history; public sport with the accused and damned no longer takes place in the town square. But still, we are who we are, and the voices of righteous revenge -- the voices of the great American id -- are many and clarion.

I hadn't wanted to, but I forced myself, in the interests of sociology, perhaps, and the mapping of our collective unconscious, to listen to some of these voices, and the voices that countered them, as they manifested themselves in the comment section that followed a story about the daycare tragedy posted at NBC Chicago's website. These are the voices that haunt this column.

And so, of 63 comments that were actually germane to the story, 15 expressed what I would describe as basic heartbreak, grieving the loss of a child's life and extending sympathy for the family. Another 11 were impersonal, focusing not on emotional but rational issues, e.g.: legislation requiring the installation of cameras at all daycare centers; demands to close the center and others run by the same owners; decent wages and better training for daycare workers.

Of the rest, the lion's share, you might say -- 33 comments -- were punishment- and revenge-focused. Some of these were harsh but restrained, while others loosed either a mythical-religious fury on the accused woman ("monster," "deserves to die in hell") or indulged a feel-good sadism ("looks like a meth head who needs waterboarding before being sterilized") that reflected a nostalgia for mob vengeance.

The remaining four comments were large-hearted enough to extend compassion to the daycare worker and, in so doing, take on a holistic responsibility for the healing process that must, but may not, occur. This total, a little over 6 percent, may be the current size of the American peace movement.

"To say this is heartbreaking is an understatement," said one. "My prayers are with Ben's family, whose pain I cannot imagine. The center had a great reputation and from what I understand Melissa had no history of abuse or any red flags. I hope and pray that something positive can come from Benjamin's tragic death . . . something."

The stakes here are life and death. When we forgive, we expand the franchise of humanness. If the human blessing can reach a sad young daycare worker who made a horrible mistake, it must also reach others we dehumanize far more randomly, from "illegals" to "collateral damage." What a fitting tribute to a child who died in his bouncy.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

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