Bully Ethics: Lessons From “Casey the Punisher”


Go get him, Ralphie!

The YouTube video of the tormented 16-year-old Australian student who provides a surprise ending to a 12-year-old bully’s fun at his expense by suddenly slamming the younger boy to the ground—breaking the bully’s ankle in the process— has set off an international debate that could help clarify some important ethical dilemmas regarding bullying, or muddle them further.


The video shows a heavy teen, one who classmates say has been bullied by other children for years, enduring repeated punches by a smaller student as his humiliation is being videoed for posterity. Then, emulating Ralphie’s sudden rage against the evil Scut Farkus in one of “A Christmas Story’s” iconic scenes, he suddenly fights back…and how. When the video was posted on Facebook, the public reaction was to cheer the reaction of the bullied boy, now known as “Casey the Punisher.” But the real life incident was not quite as ethically clear as “A Christmas Story.” In fact, it had some disturbing overtones of “Full-Metal Jacket,” in which a fat, passive recruit (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) is mercilessly abused by a drill sergeant until the recruit snaps and murders him. Casey’s response was very violent, and a younger, smaller child is injured.

This is one reason, I expect, that many psychologists and child behavior experts have adopted a seemingly tone-deaf position. “We don’t believe that violence is ever the answer,” said one expert, in a typical response. “We believe there are other ways that children can manage this.”

“Of course,” raged Patrick, writing on the relentlessly sensible libertarian site, Popehat:

” [B]ecause seasoned experts in schoolyard violence lack common sense….We’ve built a society in which, under the doctrine of zero tolerance, seasoned experts and school administrators have lost all perspective…If our schools are an asylum, the inmates are truly running it. Meanwhile, somewhere right now, a fat kid is being slapped. And no one will do anything about it.”

Also meanwhile, two people who claim to want to do something about it, the President and First Lady, have been completely silent on the incident, despite having just announced a new initiative to curb bullying. I can’t complain too much about that; there are some other important things going on: a looming nuclear catastrophe in Japan, Libya, budget battles on the Hill, the NCAA College basketball tournament. Still, we need to settle some cultural priorities here. Was “Casey the Punisher” wrong to attack and injure a smaller boy? (He, along with the bully, was suspended.) Or should his response be an inspiration to bullied children everywhere, and a warning to the Scut Farkuses of the schoolyards?

Here’s a hint: on one American website posing the question in an on-line poll, “Casey the Punsher’s” body-slam was endorsed by 99.28 of the voters.

Including this one.

The fact that the bully was smaller and younger, and that he was hurt when his victim defended himself, blurs the main ethics lesson, at least in this country’s culture. While detached academics and the non-violent ideologues try to change America’s nature, the fact is that this country has always embraced the principle of self-help and deterrence, whether the setting is the schoolyard or the world stage. Bullies are cowards by nature, and for all the lip-service given to counseling, the best way to end bullying is for bullies to realize that somewhere, there is a “Casey the Punisher” in their future.

Of course: schools have to be on the alert for situations like this, and intervene before someone’s ankle gets broken. But America’s ethic is clear: when you are being bullied, turning the other cheek doesn’t work, and only encourages more bullies and more bullying. My father, who moved frequently when he was a boy and constantly faced bullies in his new schools, told me, “I always fought them. Sometimes I won, mostly I got the tar beaten out of me. But I never had to fight the same bully twice. They don’t want to bully the kids who fight back.” And my father was one of the most gentle and non-violent people I have ever known.

He was right. Casey was right. And what I would love to hear from Barack and Michelle is this:

“We will urge schools and parents to intervene quickly when there is bullying, and to teach children why it is wrong. But we also want the bullied children of our country to take inspiration from the Australian student who fought back in the now-famous video. You do not have to accept being bullied. And you do not have to depend on others to rescue you. Our nation has a noble tradition of standing up to oppressors, and when you fight back, win or lose, you are embodying that tradition. Be brave. Be courageous. We have your back.”

“Just try not to break the bully’s ankle, OK?”

30 thoughts on “Bully Ethics: Lessons From “Casey the Punisher”

  1. While it is the most sensible position, there’s no way a democratic presisdent is going to endorse recriprocation in bullying.

    To add to your father’s anecdote, I can remember being bullied in elementary school. I fought back against one bully, and didn’t have a problem with any of the bullies again. Same thing happened in middle school. In high school, I took another tack, mercilessly ridiculing attempts at bullying. That caused some escalation originally (bullies don’t take well to being embarrassed), but then no one wanted to pick on the guy that would take them to pieces verbally. It’s not good for their rep.

    Unfortunately, I strongly doubt most bullied kids can put the right words together to solve the problem without physical violence.

    • Yes, that sounds familiar. I also kept bullies at bay with withering repartee.

      But there were those two guys who every lunch break snatched my clip-on tie (I was a freshman in high school—give me a break) and played “keep away” with it while the other kids cheered and laughed. After a week or so of this, I got sick of it and made my plans: I bought two identical ties, but right before the break exchanged the one I was wearing for one in which I had hidden about 50 sharp needles. I clipped it on, walked to the cafeteria, and sure enough, one of the jerks ran by and grabbed my tie—smiled for a second, and screamed in pain–he had squeezed a bunch of needles. He dropped the tie, and the OTHER kid scooped it up, also grasped it hard in his fist, and also screamed…and he had squeezed so hard that the needles were imbedded in his hand but good, and he hurt his other hand pulling the needle-tie away.

      Then he dropped the tie, and I casually picked it up (it was kind of bloody), to the laughter of the crowd, now directed at them, and clipped it on as the two miscreants ran to the nurse’s office.

      I was famous as the kid with the booby-trapped ties, and those two never came near me again. What a great, great day.

    • I know I’m being ridiculously pedantic, but I must take exception to your use of the term “reciprocation in bullying”.

      Fighting back isn’t reciprocation of the bullying. Fighting back is purely self-defence. I know it must seem like a small thing to object to, but this sort of imprecision in language is what leads to the inability of some (many?) people to distinguish between predatory violence and defensive violence, and thus, to lead to zero-tolerance policies such as the one which has gotten young Mr. Heynes suspended.

      If turning bullying back on its perpetrators is simply reciprocation of the bullying, then of course it must be judged as wrong. If one can see the distinction between bullying and fighting back against bullying, the difference between the coyote attacking the clutch of kittens and the mother cat defending them, then there is no way to view the video of this incident and place the blame for the bully’s injuries on Casey. If the bully had not gone looking for a fight, he would not have been injured. Certainly it would seem, from the stories we’ve heard in the aftermath of this incident, that Casey would not have gone looking to start trouble with him.

      Apologies for my long-windedness.

  2. Bullies only understand violence. If you are being bullied, how can you stop it?

    • Go to a teacher or the principal: If you do this, you are labelled a snitch and a tattletale. All the bullies pick on you. All the other students despise you for ‘snitching’.

    •Go to your parents: They can’t help. The principal will ignore any complaints because they haven’t been verified. The teachers are blind to bullying, they have to live with these kids too. All that will happen is that word will get back that you were ‘snitching’ and that you were a tattletale.
    •Try to reason with them: This just encourages the bully. They want you to appear weak so they appear strong. You may also try to verbally abuse them, but they will get you back when no one is looking.

    •Fight back: This is what a bully definitely does NOT want to happen. When someone is cowering and afraid, everyone just laughs at them. If the bullied kid stands up to the bully, there are two options. If the bullied kid wins, the bully looks really pathetic. If he loses, he still looks bad for beating up a weaker kid who is fighting back. The bully loses either way.

    Schools have dealt with this recently by using zero-tolerance policies to punish the bullied kids. The bully doesn’t really get punished. By escalating the level of punishment a bullied child faces when fighting back, it just makes the bullied child’s reality bleaker. How is he going to get into college with an arrest record? With a suspension? With an expulsion? The bully really doesn’t care if any of these happen to him. Bullies are generally (a) rich and can avoid any real punishment, or (b) headed for a life of crime or dead-end jobs.

    I once told a story about a dog tied to a tree. Every day after school, children would come by and throw rocks at the dog. The dog had nowhere to hide and he couldn’t reach the children because of the rope. Eventually, the dog started to chew through its rope. One day when the kids came by to throw rocks at the dog, he broke the rope and killed some of the kids. The response by the authorities and the parents were to mandate that all dogs be tied up WITH A CHAIN. That is how our country has approached bullying.

  3. I would amend your wished-for statement from the Obamas to read:

    “We will urge schools and parents to intervene quickly when there is bullying, and to teach children why it is wrong. You do not have to accept being bullied. And you do not have to depend on others to rescue you. Our nation has a noble tradition of standing up to oppressors, and when you fight back, win or lose, you are embodying that tradition. Be brave. Be courageous. We have your back.”

    “Just try not to break the bully’s ankle, OK?”

    The problem, correctly stated by Michael, is that there is a zero-tolerance policy by the schools for the kid who throws the first punch. And it is not going to be the bully. The victim is likely to bear the consequences here, not the bully.

    You’ve written before about zero-tolerance policies; at some point we (society) needs to recognize that zero-tolerance may sound good, but is now part of the problem, not the solution.

  4. My son has always been large for his age. He has also always been quiet and passive. As such, for many years he was the focus of bullies — smaller, older kids, who looked at him and knew that they could get away with messing with him. Finally, after one such incident involving attempted strangulation on the school bus, when my older daughter intervened, my husband took my son downstairs, positioned him in front of the punching bag, and made him practice. “Hit him in the nose,” my husband said. “The nose bleeds a lot, and quickly, and that kid will never mess with you again.” “But I’ll get in trouble at school,” my son said. And my husband said, “Of course. And I’ll take you out for ice cream to celebrate.” Then my husband went to the school, and told the Assistant Principal exactly how we all were planning to deal with the situation. To the Assistant Principal’s everlasting credit, and thank you for a very small school system, she said, “A lot of people will be helped if your son punches that boy in the nose.” The nose-punching never happened, perhaps because word got around that it was going to happen; perhaps because my daughter threatened to beat the kid up; perhaps because my son carried himself differently, having permission and knowledge to stand up for himself. None of us has forgotten the lesson, and my son defends himself now — with words and gestures, because he knows as a big kid that he will generally be held responsible, even if the smaller child started it. I’m grateful that our bullying experience was brief and had a happy ending, and am quite pleased with Casey the Punisher. Thanks to YouTube, a lot of kids might think twice about deliberately picking on someone else.

  5. At first I was with the herd, but, upon reflection, I changed my tune. This morning I wrote the boys a letter. It’s at http://fattymoon.posterous.com/the-bully-and-the-punisher-are-both-angels#

    It reads:

    An open letter to Casey (The Punisher) Heynes and Ritchard Gale

    “I’m a victim too,” says Ritchard Gale, the bully boy who got body-slammed by Casey Heynes.

    Dear Ritchard and Casey,

    I’ve been thinking about this incident and I now realize you are each other’s angels in disguise.

    Casey, this isn’t the first time you’ve been bullied. It’s been going on for years. You were so desperate at one point that you contemplated suicide. Ritchard’s actions actually turned your life around.

    Ritchard, my initial thoughts about you were most unpleasant, however, I soon began having second thoughts. You are correct when you say that you, too, are a victim.

    You are both victims. And, while Casey is now a celebrated celebrity, you are spit upon and vilified.

    You helped Casey turn his life around. But the story need not end there. Now it’s your turn to get your life in order. Whether Casey agrees to help you or not, and I hope he will, it is you, Ritchard, who must take that first step. Casey is redeemed, thanks to you. Your redemption depends on no one but yourself, so you must not depend on Casey’s help. However, I intuit that you and he have been around this block before, if you get my drift. Perhaps the roles were reversed and you, Ritchard, were the victim and Casey the bully. For want of a better term, call it karma. And so, I do believe that Casey will help you like you helped him.

    The time, for action, Ritchard, is now. You can jump on this most holy of opportunities and begin to shine like the diamond you are, or, you can keep on keeping on, trodding the same dismal path.

    Casey, I submit that you are Ritchard’s angel, and he yours. Boys, think on these thoughts I’ve presented here, and then act on what your heart, not your head, tells you.

    God bless the both of you!



        • I had already decided that if this was comment of the day, I was going to make a comment about how balanced your comments of the day are between good points and complete insanity.

          • Damn, I held off responding to Jeffrey on the hope that someone like tgt would make better sarcastic comments than I could.

            • And O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson’s were also each other’s angel.

              She was living a life of sin, and his murderous rage allowed her to go to heaven. His murderous rage and ensuing trial taught him that violence was not the answer. He just didn’t follow through on the opportunity. Ritchard, learn from the angelic behavior and then human frailty of O.J. Simpson.

              (Is that better?)

  6. Depends on how you look at it. We can crucify or we can live with compassion (a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it). I’ve done the crucify thing… when I was young I almost smacked a neighbor with a 2X4 after I found out he cheated me… I then proceeded to live with this hate in my heart for years, until I finally forgave him.

    “In the province of the mind, what is believed to be true is true, or becomes true within certain limits to be learned by experience and experiment. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind. There are no limits.” – John Lilly http://dedroidify.blogspot.com/2008/04/john-c-lilly-quotes.html

  7. I think a lot of people here are missing a crucial thing: proportional use of force.

    A lot of people are going to insist that Casey shouldn’t have hit this kid back (and I’m very much inclined toward that camp). But the thing that strikes me is that even if you assume that Casey was right to hit back, he simply seems to have used way too much force against a kid that is much younger and smaller than him.

    In fact, when you consider the age difference (16 vs. 12), it really starts to look too much like the proverbial man who kicks his dog because he’s mad at his boss; you really start asking whether this is a case where Casey takes it out on this younger kid because he’s afraid of retaliating against his other, older tormenters.

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