September 20th, 2009
“We wait for light, but behold darkness.”
During my second trip to Limestone, I was placed in what they euphemistically called a “dark-out” cell. I was never given a reason for this disciplinary treatment, and can only assume that they decided to house me there based on my “status” as a high-profile crime participant. This is somewhat curious because on my first trip to this prison, I lived in a population-style environment. A “dark-out” or “midnight” cell, it turns out, is a seg cell located in the very center of the building. There are no windows, and the door is solid steel with one small opening for trays, and another for a viewing window. Both of these slits come equipped with heavy steel windows, which they kept closed. The “bed” is stone, and it is literally carved into a massive block of stone and concrete, so that you have this enormous weight looming over you when you lay down. If you have ever visited or seen photographs of a catacomb, with skeletons of long-dead monks laying in little niches cut out of the soil, then you have a very precise image of the effect I wish to convey. There is a rusty shower in the cell, and a metal desk. There is no recreation, no television, no radios. There is no sound.
For twenty-two hours a day, the lights are cut off. There is no darkness you have ever witnessed as complete as the gloom in a midnight cell. You try to wave your hands in front of your eyes, but feel only wind. I have heard stories of men pressing their fingers into their eyes, just to watch the explosions of color that erupt. I heard these stories later, of course. When I was there, I thought I must have stumbled on to something absolutely unique. Who would have thought phosphenes could be a form of entertainment? At some point in the afternoon, they would flick the lights on. I say “afternoon”, but in reality it could have been morning or night. Such terms mean little in these circumstances. The “daylight” lasted two hours, during which time you were supposed to shower and write letters. You would spend at least the first few minutes blinking stupidly and trying to get accustomed to the lights, which were probably not more than 50 watts, but could have been supernova for the way they blasted into your skull. Even the rusty, insect plagued concrete tomb looks beautiful to you.
You start to time when the trays are coming around, during which period you might have thirty seconds of light beaming in from the hallway. You begin to pace a few hours before daylight, back and forth, bumping the wall on occasion, and ceaselessly crunching countless centipedes and cockroaches that were unfortunate enough to try and cross the floor in your way. Soon you don’t even notice them. You learn to sleep as much as possible, sometimes as much as 16 hours a day. You are dying from a lack of light. You become almost psychotic with impatience, waiting for something to happen. And more nothing happens. And nothing more happens.
I feel like that a lot these days. I should say, that I have finally learned to distrust my “feelings”, as they often deceive me. That stated, I “feel” like I have just woken up from a long sleep, and I am waiting for everyone else to do the same. All around me, people somnambulize like zombies, casually bumping into each other, occasionally walking off obvious cliffs. I yell to them, but they smile and continue on. Beliefs carry a lot of momentum with them, and sometimes you have to walk off the edge before you hit the truth. (Usually with a splat.) I am a more patient man now than I used to be, thanks in part to “dark-out” cells and other less pleasant experiences, but I still feel a great deal of angst over what I perceive to be a backwards slide in our society. Progress sometimes seems so inevitable, but it is not. I had always assumed that the goal of the American experiment was a truly egalitarian society. What a fool I was!
I was out at rec last week with a neighbor of mine. We aren’t exactly friends, but we are civil. We were discussing some minor points having to do with “relationships” from behind the walls. My neighbor constantly worries that his girlfriend is not being faithful to him, and I was sort of defending her right to live a normal life. It seemed silly to me to ask someone he claimed to love to sacrifice so many aspects of a full life. Playing the devils advocate, which seems to be my lot of late. “You know what your problem is, Whitaker?” he decried. “You are totally obsessed with reality!” I don’t think he understood why I got such a kick out of that, and why I had a goofy grin plastered on my face. It was maybe the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a long while. “Obsessed with reality.” Heaven forbid!
Pretty telling point, though, isn’t it? For most of my life, I allowed myself to be satisfied with not knowing, with knowing just enough to skate by. School was always easy for me, to the extent that I was never challenged or felt the necessity to study much. Its silly but I felt as if I had a right to knowledge, and this right would never be rescinded. It would always come when I beckoned, slave-like. I guess I figured that knowing how to find something was just as good as actually knowing the thing found. I didn’t learn to love learning until I arrived here, until it became nearly impossible to get materials worth concentrating on. I must be a masochist, or something. Or maybe all the old-farts were right: success tastes sweeter when you have to work for it.
Despite my laziness, I don’t think I ever made ignorance a virtue, like our culture and my neighbor seem to be doing. My curiosity was capable of being piqued: I was always semi-interested in science and computers, though the cynic in me thinks that this was only because such things came naturally to me, unlike literature or writing. I think my mind was open to the possibility of actually finding something I felt was worth my time, though I never really found it until the last year or so. Or, rather, until I had all of the distractions which hindered me pared away. I would say that a great many Americans also have a very open mind. So open, in fact, that their brains have fallen out of the tops of their heads. Sounds like a fairly mortal disease, and it can be, both for individuals and for societies. Fortunately there is a ready cure: take a few heavy doses of skepticism, and the brain will quickly return to its rightful spot behind your eyes. What imagery comes to you when someone describes another as a skeptic? Mostly negative, right? Why is that, when the healthy balance of open-mindedness and skepticism has provided us with all the benefits of this modern age? I think skeptics have gotten a raw deal. I’d like to know why.
Arguably, being a skeptic is hard work. Ignorance and credulity are certainly easier. Maybe people from all sides dislike you because your demands for proof are going to cast doubt on some of the placebos that they use to make it from day to day. (Though, for me, I would say that friends bearing false consolations are fake friends, but I understand not everyone operates this way.) Maybe they are jealous that you are on to something. It may surprise you, but I was always a deeply religious young man. Being hyperlexic, it was obvious that I would spend a great deal of time reading the Bible. That is not to say that I accepted everything I read. In fact, without even knowing what “liberal” Christianity was, I invented a version of it when I was still in elementary school. I have always had doubts, questions. Near that time, a family member gave me a placard for Christmas which read “faith”. I was then told that “now I finally had some.” I found it humorous, as did everyone else, but also troubling. I was a natural skeptic, but I didn’t even know what that meant. I felt that there was something deeply wrong within me, with my faith. I had no inkling that there were others like me, others like whom Blaise Pascal described as, “so made that they cannot believe.” I felt I was short-changing God, but I didn’t know how or why. Why did He wire me this way, if he wanted me to be a sheep? Couldn’t He have just made more sheep?
Most denominations of Christianity (indeed, all religions) tend to take a dark view of skepticism. “Don’t demand proofs from the Lord,” I was told. Why not, I always wondered? What's the point of omnipotence if you can’t smite down a schoolyard bully from time to time? It seemed to me, a whole lot more smiting was called for. My doubts, I was told, came from Satan. If I prayed hard enough, they would go away.
In olden days, before the Enlightenment mostly yanked out religions fangs, you were burned alive for skepticism. Unless of course you repented, in which case you were simply strangled and then burnt. Instructions on how to get the devil out of you were provided by the church, so that pious Christians could roast you for hours without killing you. One of these instruction manuals, the Malleus Maleficarum, or the “Hammer of Witches,” is aptly described as one of the most terrifying documents ever recorded in human history. This was not a church congregation run amok; this was continent-wide, organized, mass murder. Such practices are and were sanctioned by the Bible (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) and by countless great “thinkers” of church history. St. Augustine, a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus, said that, “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.” Repeat that to yourself a few times. And then think about all of the areas that science has made your life better as compared to the time of this “saint.” Medicine certainly comes to mind, among other things. I don’t guess anyone ever reads Augustine anymore, though I think his message is alive and well today.
I’m not bashing well-reasoned faith. What you believe is your business. If you so choose to put your faith in a magical tie-dyed koala-bear from the planet Do-Fo 19, who answers prayers and farts tacos, more power to you. Unless, of course, you attempt to legislate your koala-bear worship onto my free will. Then, well…then you enter into my crossfire. And I will cut you to pieces. I didn’t know of Augustine when I was younger. I wouldn’t have liked him much, I think. My faith has always been a tug-of-war between what I could objectively observe of the world, and what I was told about God. I never had the intellectual armamentarium to allow my skepticism and my credulity to co-exist in relative peace. And because this conflict caused me such misery, caused me, in fact, to withdraw from the world, questions of morality became nearly unresolvable. Some contradictions simply cannot be resolved. At least not without the right equipment.
How acquainted are you with reality? What do you believe? When was the last time you were asked that? We get asked all the time who we are, and we respond with what we do, what we enjoy, maybe even what stores we shop at. I think to a certain extent, we have allowed trivialities to define us, because it is easier. “Tell me about yourself. But do it in 140 characters or less.” That’s us. The only time I can think of where it would be appropriate to attempt to define a human being in such a paucity of characters is on a tombstone. What’s yours going to say? Did that thought make you nervous? Very telling.
What defines you? Why do you believe what you believe? Do you consider yourself a moral person? When was the last time you took a stand on something, said, “No, this isn’t right”? If it has been years, or even decades, since you put your foot down or drew a line in the sand, how can you possibly self-designate as a moral or ethical human being? Resistance to evil is a part of the deal, I’m afraid. Maybe even the biggest part.
Is it fear that stays your hand? I can understand that. Who hasn’t been afraid? Fear is hard-wired into you, in the amygdala. Very human emotion, fear. I don’t suppose that any man – let alone a group of people or a society – can be trusted to act decently or humanely or even rationally under the influence of great fear. Is the root of what you are afraid of grounded in reality? How do you know? Where are you getting the information from which you use to make this decision?
Is it that we don’t always know if something is right or wrong? I get that, too. Only the supremely ignorant believe in a world of absolute blacks and whites. We are a species awash in gray. I am often faced with situations where no right choice appears obvious. Is it apathy? Are we just too tired to even bother standing up?
I wonder about these things all the time, many times a day. When I am listening to AM radio, when I am reading the newspaper or a magazine. Among other things, I perceive an immense contradiction in what I see and hear and in what I always understood to be the ethos of America. You remember Venn diagrams from high school? They would look like two (or more) big circles or ellipses, and each would stand for something, like “people who wear red shirts.” The other would be “people who like cheese.” If the circles connected, the little space in the connection would be “people who wear red shirts and who also like cheese.” I feel like I am looking at two totally separate circles, with zero points of convergence. And yet, people are walking around pretending that the two circles are almost sitting right on top of each other. The first is the staggering amount of evil we put up with or endorse in this nation, and the second is our belief that we are always right, always morally pristine.
As I type this, I am looking at a photograph in the newspaper of some political rally or town hall style event. In the front row, there is this fairly decent looking lady (not a freaky, toothless, hillbilly) holding up a massive sign which reads: “Socialism is from the Devil! No More Healthcare Reform!” She is screaming, open-mouthed, and her shirt lists the name of her church congregation. I respect her right to voice her opinion. That is very American. I simply question whether this person realizes that the “public option” is not socialized medicine. (The word “option” should be a dead-giveaway, but political ignorance is also very American.) Or if she even understands what socialism is about. (Or, that Europe is basically a socialist-democratic continent, and Satan is not exactly seen on a daily basis strolling the cafés of Montmartre.) I would be greatly interested, in particular, in hearing her interpretation of Acts 4, verses 32-37, and Acts 5, verses 1-11. For those without a Bible handy, this is the bit where, after the ascension of Jesus, his followers decide to pool all of their money and goods together, and give to the needy. A very excellent and noble proposition. Then things go off the tracks: a man and his wife sell some property, and secretly keep a portion of the profits for themselves. (Shock, I know.) When confronted with this fact by Peter (the newly reinstated and forgiven Peter, mind), both the husband and the wife were murdered by the Holy Spirit, or God, or something; the exact nature of what kills them is rather vague. But the point is, the followers of Jesus were obviously commanded to pool their wealth – 100% of it, apparently – in order to live in social harmony. In other words, social justice was valued by God to be higher than material goods. What Acts describes is actually close to Communism, which is not the same thing as socialism, but I doubt that the screaming lady would care much about the distinction. I just wonder how she would reconcile:
1) the fact that she is rejecting the idea of guaranteeing medical care to the very poorest of us in favor of a healthier bottom line with;
2) her religious beliefs.
I have a feeling she would need to speak with her deacon first. You can almost always count on a Christian to be ignorant of the contents of their own sacred texts. Again, very, very American.
You can also count on her ability to believe virtually anything which spews from the mouth of Glenn Beck, or Rush, or Michael Berry, or Hannity, etc etc. That’s cool; I listen to them, too. I put their words under the exact same microscope that I utilize when I was able to watch Keith Olbermann at the hospital. I don’t believe a word they say, until I have checked it out. This seems like common sense, right? So, why aren’t people doing this? What happened to critical thinking? Isn't a little of that nasty skepticism called for, sometime? Or, in lieu of something good to believe in, will people always choose something bad to believe in?
Are we really going to make the horribly immoral statement – yet again – to the rest of the developed world that we view medical care as only being fit for those with means? How is this not a moral issue? The cost, some whine, the cost is too high. Too high to save thousands of lives? Too high to do the right thing? To join the rest of the civilized world, who have already made this statement? I just don’t understand it. If we were a good people, as we claim, wouldn’t our actions be good? When is the light going to come on? It’s past time for the “daylight” hours to begin.
We are better than this, damnit.
I’m pretty tough these days, or so I tell myself. Big, bad convict-man. Four years locked down. Grrrr. Sometimes, though, I get knocked flat on my ass. This happened recently when I read an article in a recent edition of the New Yorker. It was about Cameron Todd Willingham. (A copy of the article can be read at the end of this entry.) I never knew Willingham. I knew of him, because his name and memory, along with many others, still continue to echo down the halls of 12-building. Everyone back here knew he was innocent. Everyone. And yet, he was executed, just like the rest. That is my world, though. Your world never wants to listen. Nearly every time a prisoner manages to battle the system and bring a civil-rights case into an open courtroom, he is shown to have been telling the truth. This fact is seldom acknowledged, of course. (And such events are increasingly rare, thanks to the Prison Litigation Reform Act.) When a story actually does get printed about what goes on back here, it is always dismissed by the Texan public as “liberal garbage.” Why? I don’t know exactly. Some issues, like, say, the execution of an innocent Christian man, should surpass political considerations, though they never seem to. More often, the statements which do make the news are almost always from the Governor or some judge or prosecutor, and these statements are almost universally both tendentious and specious. I believe that their fervid support for capital punishment has many aspects, but one of them is most certainly a defense mechanism to the horror of what they have done. It’s political CYA. But I could be wrong. Maybe they are all just assholes.
The linked story…it’s just awful. Beyond awful. I am hoping (though I fully expect to be disappointed, yet again) that this story will get a little more traction than is the norm. Take 20 minutes to open your eyes. Please. As you read, don’t neglect to notice just how many different failures in the judicial process multiplied to lead to this mans death. This system has told you, the public, for years and years that there are safeguards to prevent the death on an innocent man. Look at the lies. Think of the prosecutors. The judges, most of whom run on a pro-prosecutor platform here in Texas. (Think about that for a moment, also. It has been repeatedly commented on that this is like having a “pro-husband” divorce judge. Judges are not supposed to be for one side or the other.) Think of how the Clemency Board failed this man, because our wonderful Governor Rick Perry filled the Board with his political supporters. They didn’t even look at his Clemency petition. They made you, Texan citizens, a murderer-by-parties, too. These men failed you. Then, after you have done all of this, ask yourself a few more questions: Did I vote for these people? Am I really partially responsible for this? Think about the last minutes of this man’s life. Do you really think he is the only one?
And finally: What are you going to do about it?
We are all waiting for the light. Do we even remember where the switch is?
10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty
© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.
All rights reserved.