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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Three Simple Questions

June 1, 2008.

During my trial, the ADA claimed that I was a "narcissistic sociopath" that "didn't feel anything". That was his sales pitch for giving me the death penalty. Obviously, the jury bought it. Sometimes, I wish it were true.

I have felt numb to things before; I think most of us have. It's how we get through the soul-wrenching pictures on the evening news of bloated bodies floating down rivers in Burma, or the faces of weeping parents staring at the collapsed remains of an elementary school in China. I wish I could feel some of that nothing now, because my heart feels as if it has been laid on a bed of broken glass and then stomped on. In two days, they begin executions again. I had forgotten how fucking horrible this feels. This great, ever-present gloom which settled on me as I watched twelve men pack up their bags and head to Deathwatch (the actual number is higher, but I only saw twelve of them). When I first arrived here, I didn't know many of the men being executed. I couldn't believe it was one person a week. This time around, I know them all. Every last one. I've prayed with some of them, made victims of some of them at chess. One, Lester Bower, may be my best friend here. I know their wives names, their children's dreams. Oh yes, I know them all.

The morning that the Supreme Court made it's ruling, and lifted the de facto moratorium, I was at visit. I had not heard. On the way back to my pod (which consists of a long, white hallway with a solid blue line running down at waist level, punctuated by a little zig-zag every 50 feet that looks exactly like a heartbeat on an EKG machine...until the line goes completely flat halfway down the hall...I told you, TDC is not subtle), I saw a certain high-ranking official (name and title omitted so I do not get beat up by the guards) whistling as he walked down the hall towards the Major's office. I have never seen this man smile, or laugh (or anything which could be construed as a human characteristic, for that matter), so it gave me pause. Upon entering the pod, it was dead silent. None of the usual shouting, or laughing, or calling out of chess moves from one cell to the next. When I climbed the steps to my row, I heard someone downstairs crying, quiet, soft little gasps of air bubbling out from a sea of desperation. It made all the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, something I had read about, but never really experienced. When I passed my neighbor's cell, he muttered two words, and I knew. "They ruled." I suddenly understood the whistling officials happiness. And it made me sick, more than anything else that had happened that day.

I expected the ruling, to be honest. First off, the nature of the Court has drifted far to the right since Bush took office, so there wasn't any way we were going to get relief from them. More importantly, Kentucky was the absolute WORST state in the nation from which to bring an 8th Amendment case, as they have killed virtually no one in recent memory. But you still have hope. The death of hope is a powerful thing to see. It dies in stages. The last few weeks, I've watched that light die in the eyes of the men around me. And so, I wish I could find that numbness of old, and wrap it around my shoulders like a warm blanket. But it won't come.

I don't deny that past evil that exists around me. My soul weeps for it. Nor do I suggest that all of the men on the Row have tried to make amends for their actions. I think I have expressed my remorse before, albeit clumsily. I'm not the only one here who has done so. Apart from the truly innocent (estimated, conservatively, to be between 5 and 10 percent of inmates nationwide on Death Rows), there is much to be atoned for. Much to be avenged. Revenged. Same difference to some of you. I have received thirteen letters since April 16th (when the ruling came down) from Pro-Death groups, the contents of which basically amounted to giant smiley faces. Thirteen. Yes, you people are clearly the morally superior one, aren't you? You know all the right answers, don't you? Even in your sickness, I've forgiven you, tried to reach out to you, attempted to understand why you hate me so much. Someone you have never met. I will admit, I have been angry. I've thought about scanning your letters, and posting them up for everyone to see how "good" you are. I even started to do this. I wrote six pages of an entry, and it was good. Maybe some of my best writing. I've never, not once, liked anything I've ever written, but this came close. It's easy to write when you are angry. The words just flow out of you, the proverbial dam breaking. It didn't help me, though. There was no catharsis, no bleeding of the pressure. It was this realization, more than anything, which caused me to put the pencil down. I realized after reading what I had placed on paper, just how low I had sunk. I actually dropped to your level. I felt like I had been swimming laps in a sewer. So I flushed the pages down the toilet, sending them to you. Enjoy.

I've yet to find the situation where anger solved anything. I guess it's natural to feel rage sometimes. But it doesn't really help. So, keep sending me your ignorant trash, if it makes you feel better. I doubt it does, though. You are just as pitifully angry today as you were nine months ago, Debbie. And just as blind. Ignorance. That's sort of the problem, isn't it? We think we know so much, don't we? Hell, it's the 21st century. Look at what we have done! Just last week, we landed a new explorer on Mars. We are clearly more advanced than we were a few hundred years ago. Right? That is what you believe, isn't it? That has to be your contention, or you wouldn't be sending me reams of paper on how you know best, and how I know nothing. I've pulled my punches with you. And I will continue to do so, because, no matter how much you hate me to say it, I am not your enemy, and I do not hate you. But I am throwing the gauntlet down. I'm going to ask you to ante up that vaunted surety of yours. You claim to be in the know, so lets find out exactly what knowledge you possess. I've got a little test for you. Before I give it, lets first take a look at something. In order for you to be reading this, a number of things had to have happened first. For one, you had to turn on your PC, which caused the power source to begin drawing power from the grid. Can you tell me how that works? As you sat there waiting on the little Windows icon to show up, do you know how your operating system initialized? Maybe you know a little something about CMOS and partitions on your hard drive, but do you know it all? I don't. I'm not mocking you, I'm just asking. And lets not even get into how the internet and TCP/IP works. My point is this: in order for you to even read this, several million things had to have happened correctly, and with the exception of a few really intelligent nerds in Silicon Valley, no one can explain it. Ignorance abounds, in other words. How easy is it to forget this, apparently. "Ok", you say. "Maybe I don't understand how my TV or my telephone works, but I've got a pretty good handle on gay marriage or stem-cell research, or the Death Penalty". The fact that so many of you believe these social issues to be simpler than technical ones should tell you just how mule-headed you are, but it doesn't. You have your blinders up, because it's a simpler life when we are convinced the only part of the world (or the truth) that exists is the portion right in front of us. George Orwell once wrote, "To see what is in front of our nose requires constant struggle", but we've forgotten that.

Anyways, I'm going to ask you these three simple questions. They are not complicated. There will be no required explanations of the waveform in Schrodinger's equation, or anything similar. They are not "trick" questions, but they do emphasize the difference between the "right" answer and the correct answer. What do I mean by that? "Right" answers are the oversimplified responses that we have all been taught since grade school. They are the mark of a society that has settled on convenience, rather than having to face a more complicated present. Correct answers, on the other hand, are the undistilled truth. I want you to answer these questions, and then admit something for me. If you know only the "right" answers to these simple questions, admit to yourself that maybe, just maybe, you only know the "right" answers to some more complicated issues.

1) Who was the first American President?
2) How many senses does a human being have?
3) Who said, "Let them eat cake?"

Ok, easy. If you have young children, chances are they could make a pretty good guess at all three of these. You probably answered something along the lines of:

1) George Washington
2) Five
3) Marie Antoinette

These are the "right" answers. The problem is, they aren't correct. (The following correct answers come from John Lloyd, by the way). The first American President was Payton Randolph. He was the first of fourteen pre-Washington presidents of the Continental Congress (look it up if you don't believe me). I bet most of you have never even heard of Mr. Randolph, which is ok. We often gloss over history, in order to make things simpler. There is a ton of data out there, and we simply don't need all of it. The trick, of course, is never to forget that things have been smoothed over for easy traveling.

There are at least nine senses which are commonly agreed upon, though most neurologists have their own opinions on whether there are more than nine (some say as many as 21). A few you probably missed include: thermoception, equilibrioception, nociception, and proprioception (this last is the unconscious knowledge of where our body parts are without being able to see or feel them...close your eyes and wiggle your foot in the air. You still know where it is in relation to the rest of you, right?)

The last question about the cake is a little different from the first two. Rather than show how sometimes the truth is changed for convenience, this last represents how an outright lie can indoctrinate itself into popular belief. So, who said, "Let them eat cake?" Well, it wasn't her. John Lloyd writes: "You probably remember the history lesson as is it were yesterday. It's 1789 and the French Revolution is under way. The poor of Paris are rioting because they have no bread and the Queen, Marie Antoinette - callously indifferent, trying to be funny or just plain stupid - comes up with the fatuous suggestion that they eat cake instead. The first problem is that it wasn't cake, it was brioche (the original French is "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche"). According to Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food, "Eighteenth-century brioche was only lightly enriched by modest amounts of butter and eggs, and not very far removed from a good white loaf of bread". So, the remark might have been an attempt at kindness: If they want bread, give them some of the good stuff. Except, Marie Antoinette didn't say it. The line had been in use in print as an illustration of aristocratic decadence since at least 1760. Jean-Jaques Rousseau claimed he'd first heard it as early as 1740, and it was probably made up for propaganda purposes." Mr. Lloyd goes on for quite a bit, but the point is, it's all bunk. All lies. And my further point is this: so, too, is a lot of what you believe to be true. How does one know what is true, then? Henry Suso once wrote, "By ignorance the truth is known". First, you have to recognize there is an infinite amount of knowledge out there, and that it's only a matter of searching to find the truth. You will not get the truth, the whole of it, by watching the evening news. You will not get it from your elected officials. You will not get it at the water cooler.

In conclusion, look at this link. This is the list of the names of men about to be killed by the citizens of Texas. Read each and every name. If you can truthfully say that you are assured of their guilt, or of their utter worthlessness as human beings, then go ahead and close this entry and go on about your business. If you have some doubt, or are uncomfortable with the idea of participating in this, then perhaps it is time for you to give the issue some real attention. Because you are a participant. If you live in a state where they execute people, then your elected leaders believe that this is what you want. All I want is for you to look in the mirror and ask yourself, "Is it?"

© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

2 comments:

Carolyn said...

I have just read the posting "Three Simple Questions" and find it fascinating. However, I noticed the link for prisoners is not included and would like to learn more.

Thank you,

Tracey said...

The link has been fixed. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.