Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Truth To Power

It is 10:30, Tuesday morning, November 9, as I type these words.  Just under a week from now, at 10:00, Tuesday morning, November 16, the state of Ohio will begin (if all goes as it intends) to kill Sidney Cornwell.
As always, there are petitions sent to the Governor calling for commutation or clemency.  As always there will be letters to the Governor and faxes to the Governor and I suppose tweets to the Governor.  There will be letters to the editor.  And there will be vigils.  There will be one at Lucasville where the killing is done.  There will be others around the state.  More people will, in one or another of these fashions, make a public or semi-public statement condemning the killing than will publicly (or semi-publicly) endorse it.  Far more.  It's always that way.
And none of that will change anything in any obvious way.
Why then?  Is it naive hope that this time the Governor will listen?  Is it a fantasy that the media will suddenly come round?  Is it the truly vain expectation that the mass of the public (or the Governor or the Attorney General or the General Assembly or the Supreme Court) will suddenly have an epiphany and decide they've had enough of the enormity and call a halt?
I suppose for some.  All those who act do so, ultimately, for their own reasons.
But I think there's a larger point.
I wrote this, privately, for a friend who organizes vigils, a couple of months before I started this blog.  I'm doing very light editing, mostly catching typos and reformatting.
With every execution where they give numbers, it appears that there are hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of calls and cards and e-mails and petition signatures going to the Governor urging him to commute the sentence. The numbers urging him to let the condemned inmate die are in the double digits at most. Obviously, we don't change the outcome with those calls and cards and petitions.
Before every execution, and at the time of the execution, around Ohio people hold vigils in protest. The numbers have dwindled dramatically since Wilford Berry was killed, but the vigiling continues. And the killing keeps happening. Again, it is obvious that we aren’t changing the outcome.
But I think it’s vitally important to keep doing these things. In spite of the fact that they change nothing. In spite of the fact that the media pays less and less attention. In spite of the facts that the Governor doesn’t care and the Attorney General doesn’t care and the General Assembly doesn’t care and the Supreme Court of Ohio doesn’t care and maybe even that Ohioans don’t care.
I think it’s important for at least two reasons.
First, it’s important because these actions provide something to do. It may be ineffectual, but it engages people. It gets the juices flowing. It keeps folks involved. The alternative is, at least metaphorically, to stay home and watch American Idol. We all need that engagement. It’s our civic responsibility.
Second, and this is far more important, those actions are a public statement. Each of us who does one or another of those things, or all of them, each of us who acts, is saying, “No, you’re not doing this for me. I won’t support it. Not in my name. Not now. Not ever. This is wrong.” If we don’t do that, then the implicit message is that everyone agrees.
Edmund Burke is credited with saying (though no one seems able actually to find the quote in his work),
All that is required for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Martin Niemöller made the same point.
First they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Sometimes that speaking out is ineffectual. But we cannot let those (our) voices be silent simply because the powerful refuse to listen.
I thought of that message as I sent a note earlier this morning to a group of friends who will stand in lonely vigil on November 16 as Sidney Cornwell is killed.
It is a shame, I said, that you meet only to regret and mourn and wish things were otherwise.
One day, I hope to have the chance to join you in a party of rejoicing, in celebration of the abolition of this particular form of calculated murder.
Pete Seeger wrote "One Man's Hands."
One man's hands, can't tear a prison down,
Two men's hands, can't tear a prison down,
But when two and two and fifty make a million,
We will see, that day come 'round,
We will see that day come 'round.

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