|"Life Surrounds Death" by Scott Ketcham|
Consequently, this blog post is going to wander from the Cambridge/Boston area to Oran, the Algerian city where Camus's The Plague takes place, and then back to Cambridge, specifically back to that week in June three years ago when a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School sophomore was killed in a drive-by shooting.
As a high school English teacher, I periodically taught novels and essays that explored the morality of capital punishment and its intended and unintended consequences. In retrospect, I see how detached, theoretical, and analytical I kept my students' exploration: we never examined an actual example of the death penalty's having been carried out. If privilege can be defined as being able to treat as abstractions those phenomena, situations, issues, events that others have no choice but to encounter, live with, and respond to daily, I taught about capital punishment from a position of privilege: this issue and all the complexities swirling around it would never come close to our lives, my teaching suggested to my students.
|William Blake's "Cain and Abel"*|
When one of my Cambridge Rindge and Latin colleagues posted Amy Davidson's "Tsarnaev's Death Sentence" from The New Yorker on her Facebook page, I had my first insight into how my willingness to go along with the jury's decision might indicate something other than my personal moral deficiency. After her discussion of the effects of the jury's "death qualification"--the professed willingness of each juror to be open to consideration of the death penalty--Davidson takes aim at the death penalty itself:
The ways in which death qualification can distort a pool are clear. But then the death penalty twists everything it touches. Defense lawyers and prosecutors construct long questionnaires about remorse. There are years of desperate appeals. States scramble to buy chemicals that companies are ashamed to manufacture. Tubes are put into arms the wrong way, killings are botched, and spectators wonder what they have gathered to witness.**It's the death penalty itself that is poisonous and polluting, according to Davidson. So had it twisted, poisoned, and polluted me?
Nancy Gertner's Boston Globe editorial on the Sunday after the jury's decision doesn't cast the death penalty as a pollutant, but does suggest our identity as "we the people" implicates all of us in Dzhokhar's sentencing:
According to Gertner, a retired judge, that the government chose to seek to kill Dzhokhar, and that when it does kill him, it will do so on our behalf links us inextricably to both the government's and the jury's decisions and the execution that will follow from them. If the government stands poised to play its role as executioner, and if it is not just "for the people," but also "of the people" and "by the people,"**** it follows that we're complicit in Dzhokhar's execution-to-be--passively, unintentionally, and inattentively complicit perhaps, but complicit nonetheless.We all chose death for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Make no mistake about it. The death penalty law was passed in our name. Attorney General Holder and US Attorney Carmen Ortiz are employed by the government we elected. They sought death for Tsarnaev for the victims, including the Richard family, whose tragedy they highlighted, even though the Richards were opposed to Tsarnaev’s death. The government sought it for Boston — also a victim — even though the majority of the citizens of the city opposed it. The verdict in the United States v. Tsarnaev was literally brought in our name.***
That trio of adverbs--'passively, unintentionally, and inattentively"--sent me to my bookcase in search of Camus's The Plague. In their conversation late in the novel, what had Jean Tarrou told Dr. Bernard Rieux about his reasons for deeply involving himself in Oran's fight against the plague--which Tarrou defines as anything that kills human beings, or simply as murder itself?
|"Crimson Cloak" by Scott Ketcham|
Eventually, Tarrou left home, recognizing that his goal in life was "'to square accounts with the blind owl.'" Not wanting to be "pestiferous"--the French word for plague is la peste--he reasons that since "'the social order around me was based on the death sentence, . . . by fighting the established order I'd be fighting against murder'" (250).
After graphically describing to Rieux an execution that he witnessed--an event more horrifying and inhumane than he had even imagined--Tarrou explains why the realities of execution are seldom known by the general populace: "'For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o' nights, mustn't they?'" (251) The general populace--we--want the death penalty enforced far from us, and are interested solely in confirmation that the execution has happened, not in the details of it.
|"The Discovery" by Scott Ketcham|
The more I understand the disconnects between the professed and the actual (if often inadvertent) purposes and practices of various systems, agencies, and organizations that we as Americans are taught to believe exist to ensure justice, equity, and well-being, the more I realize how my customary willing belief in what's professed has sometimes made me an accomplice in systemic injustice and dysfunction.
And that's plague in its most insidious form: insufficient understanding or misunderstanding, ignorance that derives from or is easily aggravated by privilege, character, and probably any number of other things. Unrecognized and unchecked, it can aid and abet death despite the professed contrary intentions of those who harbor it. And it's all the more the more dangerous when those afflicted with it are sure they are not, just couldn't be, afflicted with it.
But as Tarrou says, there is an acceptable response to plague, given that "each of us has plague within him": "'we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody's face and fasten infection on him'" (253). In other words, we must live in the manner opposite to that described by trio of adverbs I mentioned before: we must live actively, intentionally, and attentively. If we are destined to do some harm, at least we can do less harm.
When Tarrou has finished telling his story and explaining his philosophy, Rieux asks "if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace." Tarrou's response: "''The path of sympathy'" (254)
The first twenty times I read this book--I've taught it a lot--I didn't know how to interpret "the path of sympathy" after Tarrou's grim resolve to be unceasingly vigiliant in his war against plague. It seemed too soft. But one of my favorite parts of The Plague occurs right after this conversation. For a brief interlude, the two men, comrades in the war against plague, lay down their responsibilities and go for an evening swim. Even plague warriors who understand the nature and ubiquity of plague get to take a time-out. They're--we're--not expected to be more than human. We need friends; we need reasons to live other than anti-plague vigilance and righteous action.
|With Nicole G. a few years back|
Then, my enjoyment was replaced by more sadness in response to a comment left by a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) colleague/friend on my Google+ page: "I keep thinking of his [Dzhokhar's] classmates, many of them graduating [this] season. I pray for their health." Had Dzhokhar done differently, he might have been among UMass Dartmouth's Class of 2015 graduates, one of many CRLS Class of 2011 graduates completing the next stage of their formal educations.
|Screen Shot of Friends of CRLS Facebook Page|
Last year, at the graduation ceremony in which she would have participated had she lived, CRLS presented Charlene with an honorary high school graduation diploma that her brother and sister accepted for her. But to date, no one has been charged with her murder.
I think back a lot on the CRLS graduation of 2012, which happened just days after Charlene had been killed. The friend who had been sitting next to her on her front steps and who was recovering from a gunshot wound participated in the graduation ceremony from her hospital bed, courtesy of CRLS technology. And Charlene's parents attended because even though they were grieving over the their daughter, they were celebrating the achievement of their son: Charlene's older brother was graduating as a member of the CRLS Class of 2012. Those assembled, including Charlene's family, simultaneously grieved and celebrated because the moment demanded both.
But in truth, there are a lot Charlenes out there: the collateral damage of cultures that embrace drugs and violence, and of ineffective wars on drugs, gun violence, injustice, and the abuse of authority. If efforts to eradicate these ills are half-hearted and tentative, they are also nothing short of plague. And plague has a terrible way of imposing death sentences, sometimes even on whole communities, as America has seen multiple times this year.
|"Messy Heart" by Shawna Smith********|
* The photograph of William Blake's "Cain and Abel" is in the common domain: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_Blake%27s_Cain_and_Abel.jpg>
** Davidson, Amy. ""Tsarnaev's Death Sentence"" New Yorker. Conde Nast, 15 May 2015. Web.
*** Gertner, Nancy. ""We All Chose Death for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev"" Editorial. BostonGlobe.com. Boston Globe Media Partners LLC, 16 May 2015. Web. 17 May 2015.
**** As LIncoln said in the Gettysburg Address.
***** Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.
****** Angiolillo, Paul. "Cambridge Rindge Graduates Pay Tribute to Charlene Holmes as They Look to the Future." Wicked Local Cambridge. N.p., 6 June 2014. Web. 20 May 2015.
******* Please note: you will have to click on the sound file to hear Libby Larsen's piece,"Invitation to Music." Larsen has set Ellizabeth Bishop's poem to music.
******** Shawna Smith is a student at Massasoit Community College. Her watercolor was selected to appear in its annual juried student show.