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» Sex Crimes » What Firing Benjamin Zander Says About Us

What Firing Benjamin Zander Says About Us

Benjamin Zander is an inspirational guy. He’s the founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, an exceptional, world-renowned public speaker, and has been affiliated with the New England Conservatory of Music, my undergraduate alma mater, for over four and a half decades. If you don’t know much about him, I suggest you watch his TED talk to get a feel for what he’s all about:

I was fortunate enough to play in orchestras under his baton more times than I can count, and I owe many of the most incredible musical experiences of my life to him. There may be conductors out there with better technique, but there’s no one else on earth who cares more about bringing out the best in the people he directs. He can turn an orchestra full of apathetic people wishing they were anywhere else doing anything else into an inspired group of artists. He can turn a great orchestra into the kind of thing that makes me want to hop on the first flight to Boston and catch his next concert. It was always amazing to me that NEC had a guy like Zander on hand, always ready and willing to work his magic. Sadly, future generations of musicians will not be as lucky as I was.

NEC fired Zander last month. He was fired because he knowingly hired a registered sex offender to videotape performances and other events over the past decade or so. The sex offender, a man named Peter Benjamin, is by all accounts an extraordinarily talented man. Also, based on everything I’ve read, there is absolutely no evidence suggesting he did anything even remotely inappropriate during the many years he worked for NEC after serving his prison sentence.

Benjamin once did bad things. Very bad things. There is no question about that. He apparently pleaded guilty to raping a boy and other illegal sexual acts involving two different teenagers. The crimes supposedly included secretly videotaping himself having sex with all three victims, one of whom he abused for 2 years starting when the victim was only 13 years old. Those are terrible crimes, and for what he did, Benjamin was sentenced to 11 to 15 years. He ended up serving 5 years. He did his time. A lot of time. He also apparently went through what his attorney calls “a rigorous rehabilitation program” and has faced no new sex crime charges since he got out of prison in the 90s.

Instead of being treated like a model for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, Benjamin is being treated like a pariah. He’s the plague, only worse. Simply hiring him to do what he does very well can end even the brightest careers out there. The level of hatred people feel for him is stunning.

It isn’t that I’m advocating that every school hire sex offenders to supervise the kids. It’s that what happened at NEC simply isn’t the scandal it’s been made out to be. Benjamin has harmed no one since his release. The children are safe now. They were safe when Benjamin was still doing contract work at NEC. If NEC does not want to keep Benjamin around, it should change its policies and terminate his contract. Zander didn’t show a lack of judgment in hiring Benjamin, but rather a lack of unfounded prejudice towards someone he knew. Bringing Zander to a public arena for slaughter in the name of fear of someone who’s paid his debt to society is just embarrassing.

At one point, Zander apparently agreed with me to some extent. He initially responded by explaining, “[i]t’s a tragedy, an absolute tragedy that I’ve been fired for an absolute nothing.” He reasoned that Benjamin has “done nothing for 20 years,” that “[h]e’s been blameless for 20 years.” Zander wrote a letter to one of his orchestras explaining as follows:

Many years ago I met a dedicated videographer named Peter Benjamin. Several years later Benjamin was involved in a serious incident of a sexual nature and he served time in jail. I was not aware of any of the details surrounding the charges.

After his incarceration was over, I got to know him better and was persuaded, as were several other well-known figures in the arts community, that he was profoundly remorseful and determined to turn his life around. He became active again in his filming career and I hired him – about ten years ago – to film some classes and concerts for archival purposes. Over the decade or so that Peter filmed, there were large numbers of people, including adults, in the room. You have probably noticed him occasionally at the back of Jordan Hall at YPO concerts. As far as I know, there has not been the slightest incident of any kind, and there have been no complaints.

As I have told you so often, everything we do has consequences. My trusting nature, which you know so well from our rehearsals, classes and tour (we call it “Giving an A”), also has now had very serious consequences.

I felt it was the right thing at the time to give this man a chance. I deeply regret the upset I have brought to you all inadvertently as a result of the way this has all played out.

I appreciated Zander’s initial response. After all, Zander knew the man better than most. He also likely knew him the longest, as he spoke on Benjamin’s behalf at sentencing many years ago. Zander is a man who believes in the best in people and who can bring that out. He was validated by Benjamin, who seems to have proven himself as much as any person could. He expressed remorse and took steps to change. It looks like he did change. Unfortunately, ours is a society so far beyond insane that he has to be treated like radioactive material. He must be perpetually ostracized and castigated. Shame on Zander for treating him like a human being!

NEC grandstanded from the beginning. It terminated Benjamin’s contract and made sure he would no longer have access to the premises. NEC then fired Zander because he didn’t rush to throw a changed man under the bus. Zander didn’t beg forgiveness for associating with undesirables. He didn’t jump up and down and rant and rave about how awful sex offenders are and how Benjamin should crawl in a hole and die. Shame on Zander for not immediately joining in the collective hysteria that defines this country’s feelings about sex!

In commenting about what happened, plenty of people took the opportunity to show that they’ve subscribed to the insanity. They’d have never trusted a yucky sex offender who’s proven he can be trusted. Never. According to one article, a parent said she agreed with Zander’s firing for the following reasons:

He was a huge celebrity, he could be extremely grandiose and he seems to me to be failing in judgment.

Really? What exactly was Zander’s lapse in judgment? Faith in someone he knew better that most people? Not blindly despising a group of citizens? What harm came about because of Zander’s supposed failing?

According to the same article, a student wrote the following about the situation:

You do realize that he was basically promoting a level II sex offender this whole time, right?

Does the student even know what “level II sex offender” means? From what I can tell, it’s someone deemed by state officials to pose a moderate risk of re-offending. It isn’t the worst of the worst, and in my experience with sex offenses, authorities are exceedingly eager to label anyone who’s even remotely likely to re-offend as a high risk. In our better-safe-than-sorry culture, any determination should be taken with a grain of salt. The risk assessments on my clients that come back as “moderate” might as well be stamped “no risk at all.” That could never happen, however, as we’re too frightened to classify anyone branded a sex offender as anything less than what it takes for us to sleep okay knowing they’ll be scrutinized and monitored to no end.

A level II sex offender is a person who did something wrong and who a bunch of bureaucrats have decided must comply with a variety of onerous requirements. I’m not a Massachusetts lawyer, but it looks like a board has to classify each and every sex offender. The law defines a “sex offender” as a person convicted of a “sex offense,” which seems to be a fairly broad category of offenses. It could be a person with two convictions for open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior or one conviction for enticing away a person for prostitution or sexual intercourse.

The tone of the student’s comment drips of a remarkable ignorance about the very group of people it so clearly judges, but the parent’s comment is worse. I can’t help but think about how she probably lets the sex offenders at the TSA touch her kids’ genitals, but she enjoys watching someone who’s changed many lives get taken down a notch for rightfully trusting someone who seems to have done everything he can to change. Is there any hope?

The answer is very clearly a “no.” According to one article, Zander has changed his position. It explains as follows:

His older brother, Michael, a celebrated legal scholar from England, flew in to counsel him. He felt Zander wasn’t taking responsibility for his hiring of Benjamin and should apologize. So did former US Ambassador Swanee Hunt, a close friend and neighbor.

“I said, ‘Ben, for you, the first response has to be what my part is, not what they did to me,’” she told him.

A week after he was fired, Zander began to open up. That, he says, is when the transformation began.

First, Rosamund returned home from Africa. The two have been separated since 1984, but they talk every day, live around the block from each other, and collaborated on the book and inspirational philosophy that have made Zander a world-renowned public speaker.

She stressed how inappropriate it was to bring a convicted sex offender, whose crimes involved video no less, into a school to film children.

Then Michael came down for breakfast one morning with a typed letter explaining two approaches. The first would be to accept that his actions were “grossly negligent.” The second would be to continue justifying his behavior.

“The reason I think the first approach will serve you better is that it is cleaner and more honourable,” Michael wrote. “Taking the blame on yourself will release you from blaming others. It will release you also from endless agonizing over the question and from wondering and fearing what other people think…You will have stood up and been counted.”

At that moment, Zander says his perspective shifted. He finally understood what he had done. That is when he sat down to write his apology.

I think Zander’s first reaction was better. I don’t think that we should take every level II sex offender and put them in jobs where they interact with children, but I simply do not see this supposed scandal as deserving anywhere near the kind of hype it’s gotten. The former ambassador was wrong. Zander’s part in all of this was seeing remorse and believing in someone. He turned out to be justified. NEC fired him for it anyway. Her advice sounds like something you’d tell a good little foot soldier to make sure he doesn’t question the misguided ethos of our hate-filled society. It’s feeding the fear.

The other advice he received wasn’t much better. It may indeed be inappropriate to bring a convicted sex offender whose crimes involved video into a school to film children, but does that justify the brutal, dirty end of a remarkable legacy? Zander believed in someone. He made a decision that people might not agree with, though he surely had reason to make it. Apologizing is cleaner, but I fail to see how rolling over is the more honorable thing to do. Zander may not have made the safest decision, but it’s certainly in line with the message of faith, vision, and possibility that he preaches. It’s consistent with the message that NEC’s cashed in on for years. What NEC did is far worse than what Zander did.

Zander doesn’t have to admit he was wrong to quit blaming others. He can just let go. Right now, there’s just as much to endlessly agonize over and just as much reason to fear what other people think. I wish Zander would have held strong. I wish he would have continued to focus on the positive and paint this in the light of the inspiring message that’s made him who he is today. It’s truly disturbing that, in all of this, not one person seems to treat Benjamin like he’s a living being. All of us don’t agree that he’s scum. He isn’t an animal. He’s tried to show that to the world, and he’s found out he’ll forever be viewed as a scourge on society. How does that fit into the Art of Possibility? The message must not apply to people convicted of sex crimes.

I spend a lot of my time proudly standing next to people who have been labelled sex offenders. I fight for them, and I see how miserable the government makes their lives. When I argue against registration or to get my clients off of lifetime probation, I stress the importance of change. I see that people can change. I see that I’m often alone in believing it’s possible. A sex offender is someone who is permanently damaged goods in most people’s minds. They’re modern day lepers. It’s a stigma they may never overcome. Just ask Peter Benjamin.

I’m disappointed by NEC. They joined the hysteria, and they sacrificed one of their best assets. They lost a lot of respect in my eyes. The power of the angry mob and our shared fears won. It’s tragic seeing the belief in change and the awareness I fight for day in and day out losing to collective ignorance and reactionary fear on a grand scale. It brings it home seeing that sex crime hysteria can infiltrate even NEC, a tiny little music school thousands of miles away, and knowing that the world is the kind of place where an educational institution lucky enough to have Benjamin Zander would fire him because he didn’t buy into the insanity.

We preach hope until we’re blue in the face. We pretend to be uplifted by messages about possibility and change. That’s all well and good, but what’s happened at NEC sends a very clear message about society. The message is that fear wins. When the ideas that inspire us suddenly come up against things that scare us, we tuck our little tails between our legs and run away. We look for the first lamb to sacrifice in order to help allay our fears. This time, we found two.

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3 Responses to "What Firing Benjamin Zander Says About Us"

  1. Matthew Cornell says:

    5 years in jail is not enough. There is a lifetime sacrifice as well. I think he has to give up his videography. He has to give up the thing he does well. The thing he makes his living with. He must find a new path. And he must never spend time with children. Certainly not alone. Once you cross a certain line, a part of you can never go back. Just like the victims. They can never regain their innocence………Can people change…? Yes…..but some things deserve a lifetime of punishment……If the writer here has stood by and watched sex offenders demonized, argued against lifetime probation , would he stake his own freedom in believing they would not commit another crime? Would he trust them enough to say, “If they commit another crime, I will go to jail with them, because I believe in them?”…Would he let them watch his children, because that’s when you really believe in change.

    1. Schmidt Ronald says:

      Is not of your right to judge. I was convicted for second degree murder and even though I haven t gone yet through the process of legal rehab, because I still need legally to wait for one more year, I can understand this very clearly and what this 2 people both the conductor and the ex convict are going through. The conductor knowing what he was dealing with and still doing it prooves that he is an open mind and he is not judging. He just wanted to give him a chance.

  2. Rick Morgan says:

    Re: Benjamin Zander/Peter Benjamin

    Dear Mr. Brown,
    In my opinion, one of the most disturbing aspects of sex offender cases in this country is when overzealous, politically ambitious prosecutors or state attorneys general put innocent people behind bars. We all know such gross tragedies of justice have occurred on numerous occasions. What makes these injustices so gross were outlined in your comments, namely that the price to be paid for crimes like those committed by Peter Benjamin is indeed very steep. The question is whether the price to be paid is too steep for those who are obviously guilty. I would argue it is not. You state that Peter Benjamin did “a lot of time,” but five years doesn’t strike me as a lot of time. In addition to prison time, guilty offenders will also be forced to live with the fact that they have lost the trust of society far more so than people who serve time for other crimes. That is the total price you pay when you rape children and film yourself in the act. To label anyone who deems this price to be a reasonable one as ignorant seems to be the more unreasonable position to me. The often irreparable psychological harm inflicted on their victims certainly warrants such a steep, two-fold price.

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