Monday, May 9, 2011

We don't sing "Amazing Justice": we sing "Amazing Grace"

It's right there in today's New York Times.
Maureen Dowd isn't looking for closure, but maybe a little celebration.
I don’t want closure. There is no closure after tragedy.
I want memory, and justice, and revenge.
When you’re dealing with a mass murderer who bragged about incinerating thousands of Americans and planned to kill countless more, that seems like the only civilized and morally sound response.
We briefly celebrated one of the few clear-cut military victories we’ve had in a long time, a win that made us feel like Americans again — smart and strong and capable of finding our enemies and striking back at them without getting trapped in multitrillion-dollar Groundhog Day occupations.
Guest op-ed guy, Jonathan Haidt is more direct.  Celebrating the killing (I'm trying for a neutral term here on purpose) was a good thing he said, bringing out the best in us.
Why are so many Americans reluctant to join the party? As a social psychologist I believe that one major reason is that some people are thinking about this national event using the same moral intuitions they’d use for a standard criminal case. For example, they ask us to imagine whether it would be appropriate for two parents to celebrate the execution, by lethal injection, of the man who murdered their daughter.
Of course the parents would be entitled to feel relief and perhaps even private joy. But if they threw a party at the prison gates, popping Champagne corks as the syringe went in, that would be a celebration of death and vengeance, not justice. And is that not what we saw last Sunday night when young revelers, some drinking beer, converged on Times Square and the White House?
No, it is not. You can’t just scale up your ideas about morality at the individual level and apply them to groups and nations. If you do, you’ll miss all that was good, healthy and even altruistic about last week’s celebrations.
The altruism of celebrating death.  Schadenfreude, that I get.  Satisfaction, joy, revenge.  Sure.  But altruistic feeling?
You know where I stand.  I've staked out my position.  I'm a whole lot closer to Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post who tried to account for her "own discomfort as others have expressed jubilation." 
Ten years of waiting and wondering where in the world was Osama bin Laden, the question nagged: Was he even alive? Then, voila. He was hiding in plain sight in a compound in Pakistan. We had been observing him for months. And now he was dead, said the president.
Whereupon the strangest thing happened. People began congregating outside the White House and cheering, celebrating the death of bin Laden. Young people, mostly, chanted “USA” and waved the flag. I wanted very much to share their joy and to feel, ah yes, solidarity in this magnificent moment, but the sentiment escaped me. Curiosity was the most I could summon. How curious that people would cheer another’s death.
Not since Dorothy landed her house on the Wicked Witch of the East have so many munchkins been so happy. My 20-something son explained ever so patiently that OBL was his generation’s Hitler and that of course he was happy. Why wasn’t I?
I don’t know. To me, the execution of bin Laden was more punctuation than poetry — a period at the end of a Faulknerian sentence. That is, too long and rather late-ish. To the 9/11 generation, if we may call it that, OBL wasn’t only the mastermind of a dastardly act; he was evil incarnate and the world wouldn’t be safe until he was eliminated.
Would that justice were so neat and evil so conveniently disposed of.
Perhaps it is a function of age, but I find no solace in revenge. What I do experience at such times is overwhelming sadness about the human condition, our bloodlust and attraction to spectacle.
Yeah, me too.
But this really isn't  a post about his death or our reactions to it.  In fact, it's a book review, and a dip back into the worlds of clemency and redemption.
Clemency first.  I tried to lay this out in a couple of posts earlier this year, most clearly in this one. Clemency, I said (quoting Sister Helen Prejean) is " the last vestige of the 'divine right of kings.'”  It is, or at least derives from, the idea that the King was divinely chosen to be God's agent.  And the grant of clemency is the earthly equivalent of divine grace, bestowed by God through his surrogate the King.
And like divine grace that allows entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven, it is not something that can, ultimately, be earned.  None of us are worthy.  It is a gift, not a reward and certainly not payment.  As with admission to heaven, so with clemency.  It is offered not because the condemned deserve it but because the King - now the governor - is merciful.  It is, in short, about us not about them.  
At one time, in fact until the Supreme Court emptied the nation's death rows in 1972, gubernatorial clemency was, if not the norm, at least common.  Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, and with a few exceptions - most dramatically in Illinois first under Governor Ryan and now under Governor Quinn - it's become unusual if not downright rare.
What that says about us takes me back, I suppose, to what I said about the killing of Osama bin Laden.  And to what Kathleen Parker said so well.
[D]iscomfort is a necessary companion to any violence we commit, even in the service of good. There is nothing to celebrate in any man’s death, and I wish this had been the sentiment telegraphed to the rest of the world rather than the loutish hoorahs of late-night revelers. 
But, I'm getting distracted again.  Because as with clemency, which is grace, and which is about us, so with redemption.
I've mentioned that before, too.  But I want to be clear here.  I'm not talking about redemption of those we would (and often will) kill.  It's redemption for the rest of us. 
Which brings me to the story of Debbie Cuevas.
When she was sixteen, Debbie Cuevas and her then-boyfriend Mark Brewster were kidnapped by Robert Lee Willie and Joe Vaccaro from Madisonville, Louisiana.  Willie cut Brewster with a knife, shot him in the head, and left him to die in the woods.  Willie and Vaccaro repeatedly raped Cuevas, drove her to Florida and back to Lousiana, intended to kill her, but ultimately let her go.  She testified against them at their trials for what they did to Mark and her.  She also testified against them for the rape and murder of another young woman, Faith Hathaway.  Willie was sentenced to die for that killing and was, in fact, executed.  His execution was the second that Sister Helen Prejean recounts in Dead Man Walking.
Debbie Cuevas is now Debbie Morris, and she tells that story in painstaking detail in Forgiving the Dead Man Walking.  But that's not what interests me, and it's not what's interesting, really, about her book.  What's interesting is what follows on that story.  
I've told stories of redemption and forgiveness before.  In Picking Cotton, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton tell of their reconciliation.  She'd been raped.  She identified him as the rapist.  Testified against him.  He was sentenced to life.  Years later, he was exonerated by DNA.  
Jennifer Thompson decided she had to meet Ronald Cotton. He described what happened.
"Mr. Cotton. I don't even know what to call you. Ron? Ronald? Mr. Cotton? If I spent the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn't come close to how I feel," Jennifer said. "Can you ever forgive me?"
Raymond Chandler, writing about detective fiction, said
in everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.
Life, of course, is often less credible, less realistic than art. Ron Cotton's answer was as simple and honest as Jennifer Thompson-Cannino's question:
I forgive you. 
And then . . . . They hugged. They became friends. As did their families. And they spoke out together.
Then there were the women who were raped, but not by Thomas Haynesworth as they learned after he served 27 years in prison.  His response to the mistaken identifications?
“They have been through a tragedy,” he said. “What happened to them shouldn’t have happened to them. I blame the person who did this, Mr. Davis.”
Though one of his accusers isn't so forgiving.
The Henrico woman ticks off the milestones of the past 27 years of her life. Marriage, raising children, holidays, family vacations. Haynesworth, she thinks, has been robbed of all of that.
“All these things go through your head,” she said. “The Mother’s Days that he’s missed. Just thinking what would I do if my son was torn away from me, or if my daughter was torn away from me.”
She knows that Haynesworth has said he feels no anger toward her, and she said knowing that comforts her. She knows he wants to get a job as a mechanic. And she hopes to meet him someday.
“I hope that he is able to pick up his life and have nothing but great things happen from this point on out,” she said.
Debbie's isn't that story.  There's no reconciliation here.  Willie is executed.  She doesn't try to stop it.  She doesn't try to meet with him.  And yet, she forgives.  Hence the title.  And what the book is really about.
It's learning, Debbie Morris learning, to forgive.  To forgive Willie.  To forgive her parents.  To forgive herself.  And finally to forgive her god.  (It's an explicitly Christian book published by a Christian publishing house.)
Once again, there's no reconciliation with Willie in that forgiveness.  But there's redemption for Morris herself.
If what I'm supposed to believe is that Robert Willie deserves his place in heaven right there next to me and Faith Hathaway and whoever else . . . then I'm not quite there yet.
Well, sure.  That would be a lot to ask, especially since Helen Prejean, who was with Willie up to the end, told Morris that he never showed real remorse, never truly felt sorry for what he'd done.
 People often ask, "How do you feel about the death penalty now? are you for or against it?"
I still have ambivalent feelings.  I've seen mankind's idea of ultimate justice; I have more faith in God's.  And even God seems to put a higher priority on forgiveness than on justice.  We don't sing "Amazing Justice": we sing "Amazing Grace."
Because that's finally the point.
I do know this: Justice didn't do a thing to heal me.
Forgiveness did.
Forgiving the Dead Man Walking was published in 1998.  Morris was then ambivalent about the death penalty.  I don't know how she feels about it today.  But I know she understands something profound about just what we're doing.  
She understands that Grace is something special.  
She understands that mercy isn't something earned but something given. 
She understands that justice (whatever exactly it might be) is about what we do and what we deserve.  
Mercy, on the other hand, grace if you will, is about who we are and what we could be.
I don't know, but I'll lay pretty much any odds you like that when she heard that bin Laden had been killed, she didn't rejoice.  She didn't celebrate.  She didn't run into the street chanting.
Perhaps there was justice in the killing.  Perhaps that's what we did.
Surely, we can strive to be better than that.


  1. Thanks for this post, Jeff. Interesting how what to some are just picky subtle or nuanced points can actually be by far the most important.

  2. Thanks, Scott.

    I've been working at finding ways to talk coherently about these distinctions.

  3. Jeff,

    Thanks for these words. "Schadenfreude"...Well, German chancellor Angela Merkel said:"...ich freue mich darüber, dass es gelungen ist bin Laden zu töten..." The reactions in front of the White House and in New York were disturbing, but if I were a survivor of 9/11 or had lost friends, loved ones I would maybe cheering, too. Or not. I don't know.

    Clemency, forgiveness...MVFHR and others show us the way. Would it be possible to forgive someone like bin Laden? And if the answer is "yes", why? If the answer is "no", why?

    What happened last week disturbed me because I can understand - in an emotional way - those who survived 9/11 and now are cheering. And at the same time it puts me off. It's the human condition. And because of this it's an aporia, and I have no solution.

    But I still believe there are better solutions than death chambers or targeted killings.