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Inverted Virtue - The Counter-culture redux 

by James Hitchcock
October 25, 2002

In Philadelphia recently a man named Ira Einhorn was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he committed in l977. Things like this happen almost every day, but the Einhorn case repays attention because of the light it sheds on the history of our society over the past almost forty years.

Einhorn bludgeoned to death his girl friend, Holly Maddux, and left her body in a trunk in his apartment, where police found it two years later. After being indicted for the crime Einhorn fled to Europe, where he successfully eluded arrest and extradition for fifteen years. In l993 he was convicted of murder in his absence but was tried again after being captured a year ago. (In order to get him extradited, the American authorities had to promise the French government that he would not face the death penalty.)

What makes the case significant is the fact that the murderer, who was dubbed "the hippie guru", was regarded by many people not as an evil man but as embodying all the best values of the phenomenon we call The Sixties. After his original arrest, and before he fled the country, he had the support of, among others, an Episcopalian bishop and a lawyer who is now Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Apparently there are still people who regard Einhorn as the real victim in the case.

His motive was apparently the age-old one of jealousy -- he could not stand the fact that Ms. Maddux paid attention to other men, and he was known to have frequently mistreated her. Here the first manifestation of the Counter-culture came into play. Holly Maddux is said to have been a rather naive young woman dazzled by a man who seemed brilliant and exciting. He in turn used his charism to control her, and when that failed he killed her. It is a story that has been told over and over again, although usually without a murder.

 Why did pillars of the Philadelphia community rush to Einhorn's defense? Here enters a second phenomenon of the Sixties -- he was deemed to be an idealistic "activist", driven by a thirst for justice, passionate in his denunciations of "straight" society, with grandiose plans for turning that society upside down. It was a weird phenomenon of the times that some respectable citizens extravagantly admired people like Einhorn, even as he was threatening to saw off the very branches on which they sat. Anyone who uttered the words "peace, justice, love", and hurled appropriate expletives at "society", almost automatically became a sacred figure in the eyes of much of the media and of "enlightened" opinion generally.

Einhorn is not in the least repentant, because he does not admit his deed, claiming, in good Sixties fashion, that he is the victim of a plot by the Central Intelligence Agency. I imagine there are people who are more than willing to believe that. During his sojourn in Europe he again made himself into a celebrity, openly flaunting his defiance of the law.

But his absence of remorse is more than just a ploy to avoid punishment. People like Einhorn (they were legion in those days) really did consider themselves above all laws, moral and civil. So convinced were they that "the system" was rotten that any transgression of that system was itself justifiable. They professed to subscribe to a higher morality, but it had to be a morality of their own making. In effect the Counter-culture fostered an attitude which said, "I'm passionately against injustice. Therefore, whatever I do has to be right." A surprising number of people were ready to endorse that claim.

A fundamental moral, even theological, question is involved here -- the perennial issue of whether human nature is bad or good. The moral outlook of The Sixties rested on the assumption that evil is imposed by society and that free individuals act in responsible ways. Thus when people like Ira Einhorn came along it was necessary to go to great lengths to excuse an evil which was precisely rooted in a perverted sense of freedom.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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