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Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2002/ 19 Tishrei, 5763

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Toogood's choice | There's that word again: Choice. She made a bad choice. Who's that? Susie for picking vanilla when she really wanted chocolate? Jeffery for picking the cat's eye when he really wanted the steel marble?

No, Madelyne Toogood, the not-so-good mother now famous for beating her 4-year-old daughter while the nation watched via a department store video camera that captured her rage. Her attorney, Steven Rocket Rosen, told reporters that his client had made a bad choice.

"These things happen in life," said Rosen, explaining the inexplicable. "Again, it was a very poor choice."

Yes, indeedy, pummeling a tiny child 15 to 20 times and tearing at her hair falls directly into the file folder of "Bad Choices." Might we add another page to the folder? How about using the word "choice" to describe actions that bring pain and suffering to others.

I can tolerate choice when it comes to self-inflicted insults: sex with the wrong consenting adult. More wine than your body can process before the alarm sounds. That cigarette! The red dress. But when it comes to abusing a helpless creature, choice doesn't quite cover it.

Madelyne Toogood's bad choice was becoming a parent when she apparently has no capacity for empathy or self-control. Otherwise, she's a bully who doesn't deserve to own a raptor, though such a pairing would at least level the playing field somewhat. Not to be judgmental or anything.

Judgment avoidance is, after all, the impetus behind the popularity of the word "choice." When people are making choices, they're not committing sins or offenses or heinous crimes. They're just exercising their God-given right to pursue whatever and, hey, sometimes stuff happens. Bad choices.

I'm not sure when our cultural preference for choice over responsibility took hold, but I first became aware of it when my son was in elementary school. The drill went something like this: Teacher calls home to tenderly report that "Johnny made a bad choice today. He talked without raising his hand."

Her saccharine Nurse Ratchet voice is full of tolerance, understanding and concern. It's not that your child is a (ital) bad (end ital) child. In fact, in Choice Nation, no child is bad. They just "act" badly sometimes and make bad choices for which they are forgiven. No wonder some grow up to be monsters.

Ironically, smart children see right through this facade of false sweetness and are confused by the mixed message of happy-but-mad. What's up with that?

What's up is Rosen's prescription for innocent by reason of bad choices. It's true she did it, yes, but ... Choice's beauty and horror is that it confers moral equivalency on any and all actions. Speaking without permission; assaulting a child. In such a world, choice is a subterfuge for fault, and reasons become excuses.

Fast-forwarding a few days to Toogood's surrender and admission of guilt. CNN's Gary Tuchman is interviewing Rosen and Toogood, and more or less congratulating Toogood for coming forward and being honest. Speaking to Rosen, he says:

"The candor we're hearing from your client and from yourself are very unusual. ... She's basically admitting she's guilty of this crime," though Toogood is pleading not guilty to felony child-beating. To which Rosen responds: "And she's been up front and honest, and I'm proud of her."

Note the keywords here: candor, honest, proud. Please. This woman is caught on tape, her meltdown witnessed by millions, and she decides not to pretend she didn't do it. Only in Choice Nation is an admission of guilt in the face of overwhelming and irrefutable evidence considered noble.

Sorry, but you don't get credit for making good choices - for being a good person - when in fact you have no choice whatsoever. Goodness is measured by what you do when no one's looking. Nobility is doing the right thing when no living soul bears witness.

Whether Toogood deserves to lose her child permanently is debatable, depending on factors not captured on that film, including whether Toogood is a candidate for rehabilitation. Whatever the result of an investigation and her prosecution, let's be clear on one thing. What she did was bad, period.

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