We are living in the era of premeditation and the perfect crime. Our criminals are no longer helpless children who could plead love as their excuse. On the contrary, they are adults and they have a perfect alibi: philosophy, which can be used for any purpose–even for transforming murderers into judges.
–Albert Camus, The Rebel
Far in the future, some historian may pick up on the singular coincidence of two events that took place on December 12, 2005. As is the wont of his breed, he might be unable to resist the temptation to call it “an apt metaphor for the times”.
In California that day, the State Supreme Court rejected an appeal for clemency from Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a convicted murderer. As did the state governor, citing insufficient evidence. Williams, who founded a notorious criminal gang, was repentant of his gang activity, but not of the murders, which he throughout maintained he did not commit.
The same day, some three thousand miles away, in Pennsylvania, the President of the United States was admitting, before an an elite gathering, that the ongoing war started by him nearly three years ago had already killed 30000 Iraqis and 2140 Americans.
The President, in a rather offhand manner, had invited questions from the audience (a move foreign to his nature, but maybe he reckoned the forum, after all, had do with foreign affairs!). The very first question came from a woman, “How many Iraqis have died in the Iraq War?” The president mulled over the question briefly, and gave the answer above. You could see the blood drain from the woman’s face as she heard the president’s matter-of-fact, answer. Why did the president and his colleagues keep linking 9-11 to Iraq, when no respectable opinion supported their claim, came another question, from another lady. The president skirted the question of whether there was a link, and alighted upon the well-worn claim of Saddam having lethal weapons, etc. So bracing was the unscripted exchange that the president, doing a political equivalent of an astronaut’s space-walk, spoke the truth, “And knowing what I know now, I would have taken the same decision (to invade Iraq)”.
Williams, convicted of taking four lives, a charge he denied to the end, was executed the same night. Three of his supporters who attended the execution shouted, after he had died, “The State of California has executed an innocent man”.
Here, another man had just proclaimed to the world, that a war he had planned, pushed for, and started, had resulted in 32140 deaths. Far from regretting the deaths, he said he would do the same thing today. Instead of being arrested for mass murder, he was feted and greeted by the city’s notables as he came off the podium. “This was common in places like Pharaohic Egypt, the Mongol Khanate, and the United States”, the historian might add, “where worship of power was the norm”.
Following William’s execution, reporters and witnesses shared with the camera every detail of the execution, the convict’s attitude and demeanor, the response of the relatives of the victims, and of his supporters, the emotions of the crowd gathered outside the prison where the execution was held, etc.
Following the President’s speech, commentators and observers parsed his words and his body language, whether he had been relaxed or ill at ease, how he needed to go out and make his case, how his opinion poll ratings had gone up a notch from their nadir, etc. The inevitable Democratic response followed, a dull, tired, tirade about how the president had not laid out a clear plan, and not appealed the Iraqis to change their constitution.
Williams, the historian might write, had used his two decades on death row to do good works, including discouraging gang violence, writing children’s books, etc. This, his supporters said, should balance out his crime. His opponents said that a meritorious activity performed later does not wipe out the bad deed. This was a powerful notion in societies with a strong religious influence, the historian would explain.
But here the historian would have to put down his stylus and scratch his head.
For after all, he would say to himself, had not the President too had pleaded something quite similar, implying that latter good works in Iraq, building schools, the elections, the constitution, etc. should somehow nullify the crime of invading another country (of course without ever admitting that the invasion itself was anything wrong). On a footnote, the historian would recall, that such an invasion was considered such an egregious crime against international order just fifteen years back when the United States, (led by Mr. Bush’s own father, he would add, displaying his minute mastery of such arcana), had gathered a coalition and gone to war to reverse exactly such aggression!
Here the historian might spend a couple of pages musing on how the skyrocketing of media technology in the early 21st century had produced quite a paradoxical effect on the public discourse, leaving important questions unasked, and provide examples of how societies lurched from decision to decision, each momentous in its way, without fundamental questions being asked. Not asking this basic question of right and wrong, he might add, led to an increasing replacement of political debate with layers of lies and half-truths, an atmosphere which gave rise to secret prisons and sanctioned torture, gave birth to the still notorious names of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and introduced the Patriot Act, which stifled the nascent notion of individual privacy, a concept that enjoyed a brief lifetime of a couple of centuries in the United States.
He might conclude by quoting a few lines from a contemporary essay written during those times — on that very day, to be precise: “Unless the country confronts the central moral issue — that of launching an unprovoked war, it will continue to be embroiled in unproductive and jack-o-lantern debates that shift with the day’s poll numbers. As long as this original sin is left unaddressed, so long will the country, its political parties, and its people, find themselves lost upon a polemical wasteland, a journey from which the nation must needs return sans its soul.”
And shaking his head at the oddly prescient but impotent nature of such itinerant warnings in history, he would get up, stretch, and decide to head to the kitchen and pour himself a well-deserved cup of coffee.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.