I found Sally Mann’s photograph “Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, 1989” so striking that it was hard for me to understand John Rosenthal’s complaints in his essay “Sally Mann’s Beautiful and Treacherous World” [June 1993]. The older girl’s bare chest showed what natural strength and beauty there is in a naked but not yet sexual body. Their serious faces also showed a kind of power that we often shy away from or deny in children; all too often, we seem to prefer them vulnerable, powerless.
As for natural versus contrived — sometimes we want to say “I love you” quickly and spontaneously; and sometimes we want to stage a ceremony and declare “I love you” at a wedding. Which is better? Sometimes the contrivance can make a point or show us something. Mann’s photograph showed me something. I can’t make myself mind any contrivance.
The Readers Write about Staying Together [June 1993] inspired me to write a sermon on relationship as a tough spiritual discipline. I took the sermon title from Miriam Dyak’s letter — that explosive and highly comedic line, “Well, I finally realize you’re not me, but I’m not forgiving you for it!” My theological bent (I’m a Unitarian-Universalist minister) makes me want to apply that line to all our human relations problems — racial, gender, and cultural.
In an era of hesitation, Ann Nietzke chose to act [“Natalie,” August 1993]. Her profound compassion for Natalie and the courage it took to act upon that compassion make her a role model for us all.
I am so afraid that the nineties will go down in history as the decade when morally strong people — who knew what should be done — were paralyzed into inaction by the dark concept of “political correctness,” that phrase used by sneering cynics to describe any act of simple concern and kindness.
Thank you for printing Nietzke’s essay. I feel cleaner, too.
When I was ten, my parents took in a delinquent boy of fifteen. He deliberately smashed my bicycle; I screamed I would tell my mother. He slapped my face several times, banged my head against a tree, and laughed, “Go ahead, pussy.” My mother said I should be understanding because his father used to tie him up and punch the daylights out of him and that was the only kind of life he knew. Even then I knew her advice was bad. It did nothing to change him and made me into a sacrificial lamb. She must have known it too; that kid was out of our home the next morning, and I never saw him again.
D. Patrick Miller’s essay “A Brutal Sadness” [August 1993], for all its insight and tender heart, disturbs and angers me in exactly the same way. Miller draws from a set of doctrinal preconceptions (A Course in Miracles) to lay a massive guilt trip, not on criminals, who elicit his forgiveness and understanding, but on the innocent people they rape, rob, and mutilate. So we are really violated twice: once by the thug and a second time by the Job’s comforters who tell us how morally retarded we are for wanting to fight back. Miller’s essay is an example of what I would call “idiot compassion”: the well-meaning inability to set limits on predators, disguised as spirituality.
Miller assumes that suppressing criminals is about vengeance. Not necessarily: I couldn’t care less about punishing them. I want them locked up, or killed, to keep their guns out of my face and to save me the expense of hiring guards and turning my home into a fortress, which is what people in my social class had to do before there were prisons. Acts like rape, robbery, extortion, and murder are odious and repulsive, quite apart from the background of the criminal; they destroy the social consensus that makes civilization possible, and we are completely justified in restoring it at the criminal’s expense.
Miller does not want to acknowledge that civilization is founded on armed force. For every monk who devoted his life to God, there were a hundred barbarians whose idea of a good time was to burn his books and throw him down a well. There is always someone willing to terrorize his neighbors for personal gain, regardless of what effort we make to understand him. People like Miller can teach and write only so long as the state has the power to crush thugs. As Robert M. Pirsig points out in Lila, all our laws are nothing but instructions to the army and the police, and if we want a society, as opposed to a battlefield of warlords, we had better make those instructions clear and give the state our unequivocal support in following them.
Miller also assumes there is something inherently wrong with anger and vengeance. That is, we have this five-million-year-old instinct to resist predators, but Helen Schucman, author of the Course, got a message from Jesus, or whomever, that it’s no good and we should throw it out. This is a new-age doctrine of original sin, which teaches us to have contempt for our physical being: we have bodies because we are ignorant, and our instincts and experiences are illusions.
I don’t buy this. And I don’t want to forgive robbers. I want them dead. Miller’s account of David Magris, the reformed felon, gave me profound satisfaction. Why? The best revenge you can have on criminals is to see them kill themselves — not their bodies, the deaths of which are only a shadow gratification, but what offended you: their selfish malice, their contempt for human life, their identity as criminals. Nothing about this identity should be forgiven; it should die.
I agree with Miller that our prison system is an utterly inadequate answer to the problem of crime. I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s not forgiveness, and it’s not letting prisoners out. Merely crushing them is no answer either; a state that has only force is just as precarious as one that lacks the will to use it.
Cases of murder and rape are so serious that it may be entirely appropriate to kill the perpetrators, not to get revenge on them or to deter anyone else, but simply to eliminate them. If the best they can do in this life is wage perpetual war on the rest of us, then maybe they don’t belong here. A lot of misery would have been averted if the Nazi war criminals had been shot before they ever got power.
But the way the state now practices capital punishment is as inept and insane as the rest of our criminal justice system: it’s impersonal, inefficient, and expensive. Instead we should give the victims and their families the option of either killing their offenders swiftly and cheaply or enslaving them to community service. Native American societies handled murderers this way. One of my New England ancestors killed a sagamore warrior in 1706. The other warriors captured him and gave the dead man’s wife the choice of what to do with his killer. She chose to enslave him, and eventually he won the respect of the tribe through his service. Letting the victim sentence the criminal, within guidelines of course, would personalize the concept of justice, empower the victim, and (if he weren’t executed) allow the offender to make amends by producing wealth instead of draining it.
I doubt we have the collective imagination to implement anything so radical. We could, however, create more community service programs, so that criminals at least have a civilized alternative. Condemning ourselves for feeling vengeful leads nowhere. All it does is alienate us further from our own humanity.
Miller concluded in “A Brutal Sadness” that “to demonstrate or legislate with full force against the death penalty is to acknowledge that we are actually campaigning to change human nature.” I have scarcely read a more arrogant sentence in print. To change human nature — religions and belief systems and psychology never tire of this rhetoric. In the hard wiring that is human nature, maybe all those contradictory messages that alternately tell us to hit back, run, or stand tall in the face of violence can give us a clue that there is no simple solution.
I used to be against the death penalty, but I’m not anymore. I’m also for abortion rights, while acknowledging that abortion is murder. Women who face the choice of whether to have one hold contradictory feelings of love, hope, and utter despair within them until one feeling rises up and they know what to do. It is a choice they would prefer never to have to make. But when they do choose abortion, with a conscience full of prayer, the very act of their spiritual struggle is a lifting up of the human spirit for all of humanity. I do not mean abortion lifts up humanity. Nor does the birth of an unwanted, soon-to-be-abused baby. Nor does the execution of a convicted murderer. Nor does not executing a convicted murderer.
My point is that there are times when murder is warranted, and it is the conscience with which the murder is committed that makes the long-term difference for human society. Yet what is poignantly missing and systematically suppressed in our society is the voice of our conscience when we face the choice of killing or not killing. Think of how Native Americans prayed to the spirit of the buffalo and thanked it for its sacrifice before and after the kill, and compare that to our meatpacking slaughterhouses, where prayers are absent. Killing has gone on and will always go on. Violence will continue with or without legislation. Our primal human nature will always scream out to fight or flee in response to attack, but we have the conscience to choose thoughtfully how we’ll respond, whether with exquisitely planned, torturous vengeance, or with prayer and forgiveness, or with something else altogether.
There is a chasm of difference between the murderer who is full of remorse for killing someone while driving drunk and the murderer who, having tortured and killed someone, feels no remorse whatsoever. Chikatilo, the Russian criminal who is estimated to have tortured, killed, and eaten more than fifty people, loved to mutilate their genitals. He had orgasms while doing so. He especially liked to boil and eat uteruses, though he ate men as well as women. The fascinating thing is that his face took on the features of a monster. He looked absolutely inhuman. He became inhuman. Shall we keep people with such damaged consciences alive and try to reform them? Shall we study them like lab rats? Give them lobotomies? Turn them into Christians? Or is the most humane action for them and for the citizens who pay for their trials, attorneys, medical care, food, and clothes to kill them as quickly as possible after their conviction and cease this argument that a Chikatilo is somehow like us? There but for the grace of God go I? Absolutely not.
I agree with Miller that the sanity/insanity argument is absurd. Our criminal laws are absurd. Our courts are crowded with unnecessary lawsuits while real crimes go untried. What does one do in the face of such a mess? One makes choices. One makes hard, painful, Solomon-type choices. One gets off one’s idealistic cloud of spirituality and finds a way to make common-sense choices that will benefit the people who are truly innocent. For instance, why don’t we use taxpayer money for programs to prevent children from being tormented by their parents, just as the young Robert Alton Harris was, rather than putting the money into extended stays of execution and the board and care of multiple murderers? The wackos who commit torturous murders are not equal to other human lives. The adult Robert Alton Harris lost his right to live. David Magris took responsibility for his actions and regained his right to live. It isn’t always so clear. That’s life.
There is a point at which someone is a hopeless case in terms of society’s resources. I’m not saying I know what that point is, but common sense tells me that people like Charles Manson, Jeffrey Daumer, and Chikatilo reached it. Maybe to God no one is a hopeless case. But we are not God. We are given the task on this earth of making choices between greater and lesser evils. The choices we may make as individuals are not necessarily the choices that society should make, considering the greater good. So let’s leave the spiritual growth of forgiveness to the individual’s private conscience, and let’s come together as a society that has to find practical and ethical solutions to crime and punishment.
Where is the criminal’s accountability in all of this? Every criminal made choices. Several multiple murderers have said how much easier it was to murder the second time. After crossing the chasm that forever separated them from the social contract, they found some kind of freedom outside the realm of conscience, outside the realm of society. Death is not the worst state for a mind with no conscience or controls.
All lives are not equal; neither are all deaths. Miller’s example of the child who died of leukemia certainly is a different kind of death from the one that Robert Alton Harris dealt his victims. His lack of comprehension that deaths are different must come from a lack of exposure to actual death. I was a nurse for several years and spent hours with people as they died. To die at the hands of someone who hates you is worlds apart from a death (at any age) preceded by an acceptance of your own circumstances of ill health, surrounded by family and friends. Such a death often allows people to let go of this world, to say goodbye to loved ones and allow them to say goodbye to you. Any violent or sudden death, whether through murder or not, is quite different.
Miller also suggests that since violence begets violence, nonviolence must beget nonviolence. But it doesn’t work so nicely. People who idealistically face violence with nonviolence have often been mowed down. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. Think of Anwar Sadat. Think of the students in Tiananmen Square. Think of Gandhi. Think of Jesus.
The choice for nonviolence is inherently personal and private. It is not a choice an entire society can make. To eliminate capital punishment would not raise the ethics of humanity. It would, however, be a powerful symbol that violence will not be met with death. You might as well invite mass murderers in for lunch and serve yourself on the menu. Give me all the statistics you want to about how it doesn’t deter crime; I’ll keep the death penalty as a symbol of the ultimate consequence the violent must face.
Forgiveness is often mistaken for the passive acceptance of wrongdoing and the denial of anger. But true forgiveness accepts wrongdoing and anger and strives to heal, correct, or redirect them. Thus, forgiveness is an inherently paradoxical spiritual path.
I am not so arrogant as to presume that I understand the ancient “hard wiring” of human nature. I only know about my own experience. When I feel angry and vengeful, I attempt to face those feelings squarely and completely, and then I decide whether I want them to drive my behavior. In the last few years I have taken up a discipline of forgiveness, which means I have decided against vengeance as a guide. This is how I go about changing my own human nature.
This process usually feels like “ego death,” which is precisely what our so-called correctional system should be about — suppressing criminal behavior and changing ways of thinking until criminals, whose egos are often saturated with the belief in vengeance, are liberated from that belief. But as long as society is unwilling to liberate itself from that same belief, it will continue to have a chaotic correctional system that does little more than warehouse and further degrade society’s most dangerous members. Killing a few murderers will not make a bit of difference in lowering our crime rates. It never has.
It is tragic testimony to the current popularity of the belief in vengeance when caring and intelligent people say that they don’t even care whether the death penalty actually deters crime; they just like capital punishment as a symbol. A Course in Miracles suggests a reason that capital punishment is morbidly alluring to so many: “The death penalty is the ego’s ultimate goal, for it fully believes that you are a criminal, as deserving of death as God knows you are deserving of life.”
My husband and I recently divorced. He took all of our back copies of The Sun. I’m deeply upset because I can’t afford to purchase back issues. But I can buy a subscription. Would you please start sending me the magazine as soon as possible? I can live without him but not without The Sun!