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Caning Americans

WE are opposed to beatings, floggings, thrashings, torture, or any other corporal punishment with the intent to wound or injure.

So our view on the now-famous flogging case in Asia, where 18-year-old American citizen Michael Fay is sentenced to receive six cane lashes for a 10-day spray-paint spree in Singapore, is clear. It does not matter that the punishment seems fair to those from an Asian culture. Behavior adjustment by brutality, by an effort to scar an individual physically for life, is wrong, whether it is an American citizen or a citizen of Outer Timbuktu.

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Given the alarming rise of crime in America, the large pro-punishment crowd in this country is not surprising. ``Flog 'em!'' is the cry on the talk shows. Still, President Clinton's request for clemency for Mr. Fay can be seen as an expression of values Americans should hold dear.

What seems lost in the hubbub on the Singapore case is the larger point Singapore's leaders intend to make with it. It is not an accident that the defiant Asian lobby at the United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna last June was led by powerful elder Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew. The lobby demanded that human rights be based on cultural norms, not universal liberal and humane values.

Singapore's harsh sentence on Fay did not just happen. It is an object lesson for the West, whose culture Mr. Lee and other Islamic (or Confucian) leaders feel is lost in a degenerating moral nihilism. It is not going too far to say that the caning of Fay is an almost literal expression of what Samuel Huntington has called an emerging ``clash of civilizations.''

It is interesting to find many American conservatives who so disagreed with ``cultural relativism'' last June in Vienna now supporting Lee's tough punishment against young barbarians. One gentleman from the conservative Rockford Institute said on the ``MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'' that Americans could learn a lot from Singapore's approach to dealing with the grave crime of graffiti.

Finally, what also seems lost in the American discussion about one of its own is the tragic and forgotten fact that such brutality, wrong as it is, is minor compared to the tortures ongoing in many countries. Yes, flogging breaks an international law. But we do not hear the talk shows in this country asking for the prosecution, for example, of war criminals in the former Yugoslavia who are still committing murder there. Isn't that against international law?

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