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Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Presumption of Innocence

Monday, May 16, 2011

My first thought upon hearing the news of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest was that, if there is even a kernel of truth to the allegations, it is highly unlikely that this is the first time he has been guilty of this kind of behavior. And indeed, the stories have begun, not to surface, but to resurface, with one former Sarkozy adviser quoted a few years ago as saying, "Everyone in Paris has known for years he had something of a problem. Not many female journalists are prepared to interview him alone these days."

If this is actually the case, then it is a condemnation not just of one man, but of an entire system. Because it is impossible to engage in this kind of behavior with impunity, and especially over the long term, without an enabling system in place. That enabling system consists of the fixers who clean up afterwards -- by hiding evidence, by discouraging victims from seeking justice (whether through persuasion, bribe or threat), and by using euphemisms such as "seduction" to describe coercion or rape. But it also consists of all those who willingly avert their gaze from behavior that they know crosses the line between unseemly and criminal.

This is all too common in everyday life, but it undermines the legitimacy of the political system -- and the political class -- when the perpetrator is a man of power. In discussing the presumption of innocence, we often forget that there are in fact two varieties: The first is a legal presumption of innocence, to which Strauss-Kahn, like everyone accused of a crime, is entitled; the second is a social presumption of innocence, which often results in the miscarriage of justice before the formal system has even been engaged. This social presumption of innocence is what leads some to convince themselves that the behavior they have witnessed or that they are aware of did not really take place, or means something different, because a person like Strauss-Kahn can not be capable of such a thing.

In France, nonassistance to a person in danger is a crime. And I wonder how many people today are asking themselves if they are guilty of it with regard to Strauss-Kahn's past behavior, regardless of whether or not he himself is found guilty of the latest accusations in New York.* I also wonder whether we would have even heard of the latest accusations had they occurred in Paris, where the pressures that would have been brought to bear -- by the fixers and enablers -- on an African immigrant and single mother struggling to get by on a working-class salary might have convinced her that it was in her best interest to keep quiet.

*Note: This post was revised for clarity.