Like many Americans, I never paid much attention to the link between alcohol and violence The violent crimes — fights, attacks, rapes and murders — that involved alcohol every day had nothing to do with me. Until Jan. 21, 2002, when, in an instant, I learned first hand just how devastating acts of alcohol-related violence can be.
I have no memory of the attack; I only remember walking out the front door. I later learned that the three individuals, who did not know me, had been drinking the entire day. I was told that, when I ran into them, they were slashing tires of cars parked in front of the Kansas City restaurant I managed.
When I woke up, I was in the hospital. I remember asking my wife, Amy: “Where am I? What happened? What day is it?” I had been attacked and beaten, and it was Thursday. Then she told me my parents were on their way, and I asked, “Is it really that bad?” At that moment, I realized I could not move; I was paralyzed from the neck down. I was beaten so badly that a disc in my upper neck had been dislodged and was pushing on my spinal chord. My face was ripped open in three places and my nose was broken, the bones practically shattered.
I underwent emergency surgery to remove the damaged disc and take the pressure off my spinal cord. The pressure from the disc, however, caused a severe bruise on my spinal chord and left me a spastic quadriplegic. Technically, I am paralyzed from the neck down, but in my case, the left side of my body is affected more than the right.
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After the surgery and months of therapy, I regained some mobility. But the damage from the attack was so severe that my remaining paralysis is permanent. My life, my identity — everything changed for me in one alcohol-fueled instant.
My life in Kansas, including my marriage, came to an end. Collateral damage from the attack. So I decided to move back to State College, where I grew up. Even though my parents had moved to Colorado, old friends and an unfinished degree were something to cling to. I arrived mentally and physically broken but determined.
After years of work, and myriad therapies, I’m learning to embrace my opportunities and fight the good fight. I am not wheelchair bound, and I finally (thanks in part to Penn State disability services) earned an English degree. Yet the daily struggles I face have no end in sight, and the focus it takes to keep from staring into the abyss still blurs at times. To this day, I dwell on the events that brought me here.
Alcohol was a factor not only in my attack but also, to my surprise, the sentence my attackers received. So I took a closer look at how our society treats alcohol. I discovered alcohol has a dual personality.
We love and celebrate alcohol for the way it makes us feel. And, like the elixir that transformed Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, we hate alcohol and blame it for how it “makes” us feel and what it “makes” us do.
It all starts with the love. There is no denying that a couple of drinks can make you feel good. Alcohol has always had broad social appeal, and it is an accepted and expected part of all sorts of social occasions. Alcohol producers know this and have been successful in capitalizing on that expectation.
Advertisers for alcohol manufacturers market their products as a gateway to a certain lifestyle and level of coolness or sophistication. The advertisements often portray big parties full of beautiful people and good times being shared with friends and favorite libations. The only references to any negative consequences associated with their products are small print and quickly spoken audio reminders to “please drink responsibly” or to “remember to always designate a driver.”
No matter what method is used or which audience is targeted, America’s media overwhelmingly favor what is good and fun about alcohol. But coupled with our love of alcohol and its portrayal as a pathway to more fun, better friends and an enviable lifestyle, is the contempt we have for it when things go awry. Love quickly turns into hate.
Alcohol transforms into an excuse for irresponsible behavior. Americans know that they can blame alcohol for their own recklessness and the public will buy it.
Mel Gibson went on camera to tell the nation that it wasn’t him; it was the alcohol that spewed a litany of anti-Semitic rants after his traffic stop.
Even our legislators, when caught in compromising legal and/or ethical situations, blame alcohol for their actions. For that matter, how often have any of us made an exception for a friend’s (or even our own) behavior because he or she had been drinking? The courts, schools and advertisers need to send a much clearer message about the consequences of alcohol-related violence, and there must be legal consequences
Alcohol is a drug; its legal status does not change that fact. But it does change how it is perceived by society. With the exception of the established alcoholic, alcohol abuse is rationalized as blowing off steam or just partying hard. For an alarming number of Penn State students, it is not uncommon to get drunk regularly. And binge drinking is a problem on virtually every college campus. But the only message that seems to get through is: “Don’t drink and drive.”
One who is arrested and convicted for driving drunk faces numerous fines and criminal penalties, including jail time. In some states, repeat offenders even face public humiliation, such as special license plates and bumper stickers in addition to criminal penalties. Unfortunately, those guilty of other violent behaviors while under the influence of alcohol rarely face similar consequences. Even the term “under the influence” indicates that one is not responsible for his or her behavior. Attorneys often argue that because alcohol was a factor, it wasn’t really their clients’ fault.
My own experience exemplifies the attitude the judicial system has toward nonvehicular alcohol-related offenses. My assailants were captured and arrested the night of the attack. All three admitted to some level of involvement in the beating. Even though I couldn’t remember what happened, their capture and confessions gave me confidence that they would be punished and that justice would be served.
But justice, instead of moving swiftly, didn’t even get out of her chair. Due to poor witness accounts and a deployment to Iraq, two of my assailants got off with only misdemeanor charges. The only one charged with a felony, Andrew Moreno, admitted to doing most of the damage. The pre-sentence investigation report also recommended that he “receive maximum jail time, due to the excessively violent nature of the attack.”
Judge Peggy McGraw sentenced him to 18 years in prison. But because alcohol was involved, she set aside the prison sentence in favor of a 120-day in-prison alcohol rehabilitation program.
I wake up every morning facing a day filled with pain and physical adversity. And the people responsible for my lifelong disability are free, able to walk away and turn their actions from that January night into hazy memories. All because a judge concluded that the attackers weren’t to blame. It was the alcohol that made them beat me nearly to death, leaving me permanently disabled — and I can’t just walk away from it.
If Moreno had hit me with his car instead of his fists, he probably would still be in prison.
In the years since the attack, I have learned a number of reasons the events turned out the way they did in my case. Sadly, it is far easier to identify problems than solutions. And there are no easy solutions when it comes to alcohol-related violence.
I do believe, however, that teaching responsibility is imperative to making a difference. We need to emphasize that acting responsibly while drinking doesn’t end when you hand over your keys. We also cannot continue to celebrate alcohol, then scapegoat it as a reason, or excuse, for violent behavior. Those who commit violent acts while intoxicated still make the choice to drink and are still responsible for their behavior.
As a society, we have a reputation for banding together to confront situations that threaten the safety of the general public. Take cigarettes and secondhand smoke, for example. Every day, there are rallying cries over the effects of secondhand smoke and the potential damage it causes to nonsmokers.
Yet the actual damage caused by those under the influence of alcohol goes unnoticed and rarely mentioned. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, almost 25 percent of all violent crimes involve alcohol, including almost a third of all rapes. Of the 160 criminal arrests during this year’s State Patty’s Day drinking event, more than 10 percent were misdemeanors or felonies, and all the arrests involved alcohol.
Efforts to increase community awareness by groups such as MADD and SADD, coupled with ever-escalating legal consequences, have contributed greatly to the steady decline of drunken driving. Yet, with the exception of the attitude toward driving drunk, there seems to be a virtual celebration of alcohol in America.
The amount of collateral damage caused by those under the influence of alcohol dwarfs that of secondhand smoke, so where is the rallying cry to stop secondhand alcohol violence? We blame secondhand smoke on the smoker, not the cigarette. Isn’t it time we blame the drinker and not the drink?
As a victim of alcohol-related violence, my injuries are lifelong and life changing. Unlike my attackers, there will never be a day that goes by that doesn’t include a reminder of our encounter and the damage it caused. And every time I witness something in my hometown as pointless as State Patty’s Day or read about yet another admired sports figure arrested in a bar, my desire for urgent action increases.
When it comes to the dangers of alcohol abuse, it is time to start thinking beyond the car.
Theodore "Ted" Connolly lives in State College and can be reached at email@example.com.