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`Culture' Is No Excuse

THE acquittal of Rodney Peairs, a 31-year-old in Baton Rouge, La., who shot and killed a Japanese exchange student he thought might be an intruder, has shocked and angered the Japanese. Because private guns are outlawed in Japan, the story plays as a clash of two cultures.

The Japanese reaction to the acquittal was summed up by a huge front-page headline Sunday in Tokyo's largest daily newspaper, which read simply, "Unbelievable." The verdict adds to the Japanese view of America as sanctioning an unstable, violent, and lawless culture.

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In Baton Rouge, many local citizens reportedly feel sympathy with Mr. Peairs. The shooting is regretted. But since the mistake was made in the act of defending the home, a cherished right in America, it is not being condemned.

The episode itself was both tragic and stupid. The exchange student, Masaichi Hattori, 16, wearing a white tuxedo and carrying a camera, had been looking for directions to a Halloween party when he was shot with a .44 Magnum outside Peairs's house. Peairs testified that Hattori did not stop when asked to "freeze," and that he had thought Hattori's camera was a gun, so he opened fire.

One wants to ask many questions: Why did Peairs not wait longer or fire a warning shot? Does this set a precedent for vigilante justice and killing people so long as they are on private property and look "different"?

But in the larger sense, Americans ought not resort to the argument that Japanese anger can be dismissed as a matter of "cultural difference." To blame this case on "American culture" or the "American system," or to simply say that this is the price one pays for individual liberty, is not to challenge problems in the culture that allow such a tragic event to take place.

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