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
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
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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