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It's A Free Country

The Politics of Retribution
by Steve Earle

I live with a woman who hates television. She abhors the noise and the unnatural light that pollute the delicious, tranquil environment that she has painstakingly crafted for herself and her family; so I wasn't watching the news on the morning on September 11.

Then the phone rang. It was my dad.

"Have you seen this shit?"

I asked what he was talking about.

"This shit in New York. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center."

I found the remote and hit the switch. Black, noxious smoke poured from a gaping whole in one of the Twin Towers. CNN was already reporting that witnesses said that the plane appeared to fly directly into the building under its own power. My dad, a retired air traffic controller and licensed pilot, was way ahead of them.

"No way this is an accident."

He meant that it was inconceivable to him that a crew of at least two professional pilots would allow a plane with several hundred passengers aboard to simply careen out of control and strike the tallest structure in the Manhattan skyline.

I wasn't so sure; or maybe I was in denial. Then the second plane hit and we both saw it. Hell, half the country saw it. We all watched in horror as the airliner practically stood on one wing, nearly missing the north tower. My dad said that whoever was flying it must have been "really wracking it" to make that final, fatal turn.

The news only got worse. There were unconfirmed reports of hijackings up and down the East Coast. By the time CNN reported that the Pentagon had been attacked as well, Dad and I weren't talking much. We kept the line open, if only to assure ourselves that the other was still there. When first one tower and then the other collapsed we watched in stunned silence. I can only imagine what was going through my dad's mind. Everything we had witnessed that morning flew in the face of everything he thought he knew about aviation, and for that matter, humanity. I remember vividly what was going through mine.

Thousands of people were dying while millions watched on television. I am certain that, for an instant, we were all connected and focused on the people in those three buildings and four airliners and their families. For me, the moment was fleeting and soon gave way to my own agenda, both personal and political. How will all of this affect me and mine?

I realized, of course, that we were at war. I have a draft-age son. I asked my dad to let me go and rang Justin's phone until he woke up. I told him to turn on the news and to stay in touch.

I have friends in New York. Were they all right? I made several calls, but of course the lines were all busy. It would be days before I knew the answer to that one.

The checklist was long. While I struggled to reconcile my every fundamental belief against a world that would never be the same, public officials began to weigh in on TV. I found their unity and tough talk unnerving somehow and oddly familiar. A vague uneasiness began to settle over me like a pall. I tried to be methodical and stay on task, but my mind was racing and looming ahead was the insistently gnawing realization that the country was in a mood for revenge, and that years of work by death penalty abolitionists all over the world, tough thankless work that was finally starting to bear fruit, had just gone up in smoke.

I oppose the death penalty for anyone, for any crime, regardless of circumstances, on both moral and political grounds. I've attended candlelight vigils outside prisons, gone to rallies on the steps of my state capitol, and camped out on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. I've corresponded with several death row inmates over the years. I have crisscrossed the country, traveling with murder victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty; yeah, you read it right the first time. People who have lost a loved one to violent crime and who actively oppose the death penalty. They reject the idea that retribution is the remedy for their loss and their pain. They say "not in my name" when society at large (in this, and a handful of other countries) suggests that the taking of another life will afford them closure and healing. From these amazing people I learned the greatest lesson of my life as an activist: that no person or group of people will ever bring about fundamental change in the criminal justice system in this country by ignoring the pain and loss of crime victims and their families.

The human components of that system, the prosecutors who aspire to be district attorneys who aspire to be state attorney generals who aspire to be governors and presidents, have been aware of this dynamic for some time. They watch the polls and the polls tell them that the majority of us still support the death penalty. Obviously, victim's rights advocates and death penalty abolitionists, combined, comprise a tiny minority of the electorate. As passionate as activists on both sides of the issue can be, it isn't rhetoric that our leaders are responding to. Rather, it is our empathy. Ask the question, "What if it was your wife, your child, your mother, or father?" and you will elicit a nearly unanimous, emotional response. Thankfully, most of us will never lose a member of our families to violence, but we know that it's not impossible, and we hold a special place in our hearts for those that have been less fortunate than ourselves for we know that there, but for the grace of God, go we.

On September 11, we all became victims' family members. The scope of the tragedy was unprecedented in our history. Nearly three thousand lives were lost. Thousands more were widowed and tens of thousands were orphaned. Entire battalions of firefighters were wiped out, along with scores of police officers, ambulance drivers, and other first responders. Even they were innocent victims, just regular people going about their everyday lives. They all had hopes and dreams and aspirations. When they died their families became our families. Their loss and their pain became our loss and pain. We became them and they became us.

Loss alone is hard enough to process. Dealing with death and loss are at the core of virtually every spiritual system that has evolved on this planet. When death comes suddenly and cruelly, those left behind must deal with anger as well. Anger that, like a fever, is perfectly natural and must be allowed to run its course before any healing can commence. However, that selfsame anger is inherently toxic, and if allowed to smolder unabated, will exact a terrible toll in flesh and spirit.

The very concept of retribution as a healing force is, in my view, inherently faulty. Politicians embrace it only because they have learned that we will respond to it emotionally at the ballot box. My growing fear since September 11 is that they, sensing our anger, may be applying the same principle to the so-called "war on terror."

As we prepared to send American troops into the mountains of Afghanistan, no politician dared to object for fear of impaling his political ambitions on an olive branch in a decidedly warlike political climate. Only one, Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California, voted against an emergency defense spending measure that granted the Bush administration a virtual blank check to cover the costs of a protracted campaign in a theater of war that bankrupted the Soviet Union. Some of our most "liberal" legislators voted for the oddly titled Patriot Act, a sweeping suspension of many of the protections against unlawful search and seizure and invasion of privacy afforded us by our Constitution. They all knew that we were watching them and that we were hurt and frightened and that we would remember what they did and said in the name of the People come Election Day. For fully half of them, that day was a little over a year away and at the party level, the balance of power in both houses of Congress would be at stake. They tell us that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. They say that this war with no clear objective except, in the words of our president, "to get 'em," will protect us from violent people who would do us harm. They say the same thing about the death penalty. Never mind that there is no statistical evidence to support any claim that capital punishment deters violent crime. The truth is that when we are hurt and angry, just saying that we are going to go out and "get 'em" feels good. Then we're supposed to move past anger, to mourning, and then on to healing, but these are the more private stages of the grieving process, and a lot less easy to convert into political capital.

As far as the Constitution is concerned, it is my belief that it is crucial at this point in our history to remember that, like me, our attorney general has his own agenda. He's concerned about abortion, gay marriages, and evolution being taught in our schools. Of course, all that will have to wait. We are at war, after all, and that darn Constitution is always getting in the way. But, hey, if this war goes on long enough...who knows?

Steve Earle is one of the most respected singer/songwriters of this era. He writes politically profound country music as well as bluegrass, and has been a passionate opponent of the death penalty.


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