Character Does Count

Article excerpt

It was an unforgettable scene. Four police officers had been acquitted of beating Los Angeles motorist Rodney King. Riots followed. While the world watched on television, Reginald Denny, a 36-year-old truck driver, pulled up to an intersection.

Suddenly, a rioter yanked open the door and pulled Denny from his truck. Four young men beat him within an inch of his life. After kicking him, one rioter raised his arms in celebration. Another slammed a fire extinguisher taken from the truck into his skull. Another stole his wallet.

Denny would be dead today, were he not rescued by two men and two women: a nutrition consultant, an unemployed aerospace worker, a laid-off data control worker, and a young man the rescuers initially feared was a gang member. Two of the rescuers came to the scene after watching the beating on television.

The four rescuers eventually delivered Denny to the hospital. He went into convulsions and started spitting up blood as he arrived. According to the Los Angeles Times, one of the rescuers was told by a paramedic, "One more minute, just one more minute, and he would have been dead."

The four people who attacked Reginald Denny and the four people who saved him were of the same race and from the same neighborhood. Two of the rescuers were unemployed.

Why did some succumb to the mob mentality, and some display a mercy mentality? It wasn't because of race--or racism--because all of the rioters and all of the rescuers were black. It wasn't because some were rich and some were poor, because they all came from the same area. No, the difference had nothing to do with the kind of social forces often used to explain antisocial behavior and justify more government programs.

The difference was character.

At some point in their lives, the four people who saved Denny's life had learned a basic principle on which every civilization must rest: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Race, money, education, status in life, age--none of it mattered.

It makes some people nervous when a politician talks about character and integrity, especially a former Southern Baptist minister like me. They assume you're out to establish a theocracy based on your beliefs, or that you're pandering to conservative voters. They comb your record looking for examples of hypocrisy and use your mistakes to build a case against you.

I wish they could be governor for a day, to try to figure out how to make a finite amount of tax dollars stretch to fill an infinite number of needs. I wish they could preside over a state government that spends so much money dealing with people's moral failings that it has little left to invest in the human potential. I wish they could see what it costs when we fail to see that character really is the issue.

Some say character doesn't count. I can tell you it does count, and I can count how much. Consider:

Arkansas will spend more than $170 million on its prison system this year. We'll spend an average of $14,000 on each inmate, far below the national average but enough to easily put two students in college.

We'll spend almost $50 million adjudicating crime in our courts and $40 million on our juvenile system. We'll spend about $60,000 on each juvenile we send to a wilderness camp, only to put many of them in prison when they commit crimes as adults.

We'll spend almost $350,000 begging people not to litter our beautiful state with candy wrappers and beer cans. We'll spend about $80,000 to replace or repair vandalized highway signs.

Almost $107 million in property was stolen in Arkansas in 1996. That year, more than $1.7 million in property was lost in fires of a suspicious nature in Little Rock alone.

Among unmarried mothers and teenage mothers across this nation, two-thirds will have their medical bills paid for, at least partly, by Medicaid. …