Twisting the Pope's Arm/ Should POW's Stay Put? | Media | Chicago Reader

Twisting the Pope's Arm/ Should POW's Stay Put? 

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By Michael Miner

Twisting the Pope's Arm

Moral certainty often isn't pretty, but it becomes Sister Helen Prejean. No doubt this has to do with the easy way she tells a story, her Louisiana drawl, and the fact that she's one dogmatist who doesn't seek to smite her enemies. Anyway, absolutism clings to her like a state of grace.

Her life belongs to the principle that to kill is evil. And as anyone knows who's read her book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States or seen the movie inspired by it, she has chosen to witness that evil on death row, where she comforts the condemned and stands by them at the gallows.

Prejean means to bend the river. The river is her church's centuries of tolerance of capital punishment. "Rivers do not bend in one fell swoop," she said the other day in a speech in Chicago. "It's a long, long history, going back to Thomas Aquinas and before him even Augustine, who was saying evil people could be coerced with the sword. Probably we could trace it back to Constantine, where the church became aligned in some ways with empire and the force of the empire and the right of the state to use the sword for whatever purposes."

But in 1995 John Paul II produced an encyclical, the Gospel of Life. "He literally pushed it to the edge," said Prejean, "because he talked about the dignity of the human person, he talked about how modern-day society now had prisons....He said the death penalty should be rare, if not nonexistent.

"But he said in there, 'But in cases of absolute necessity the state may execute.'"

That, she said, "hit me in the pit of my stomach. Because when the pope said this, the pope opened the loophole that anybody who wanted to do the death penalty--Catholic district attorneys, people running for governor--anybody could quote that line from the pope."

She sent him a letter. "I told him how great his encyclical was and all the good stuff in his encyclical. But I said, 'Your Holiness, when you said that line, in cases of absolute necessity people can be executed by God's grace...' Harry Connick Sr. is the Catholic district attorney of New Orleans who goes for the death penalty every bloomin' chance he gets. The BBC was doing a story on me, and they had a quote from him saying, 'As the pope said, in cases of absolute necessity we can use the death penalty.' So I was able to quote to the pope Harry Connick Sr. using his words for death."

She said she told the pope, "The death penalty is a contradiction of the gospel of Jesus."

A few days later the Vatican announced a change: the loophole was dropped.

The occasion of Prejean's visit to Chicago was a luncheon at which U.S. Catholic magazine gave her its 1999 award for furthering the cause of women in the church. "We know what to do about innocent people," she said in her speech. "The moral question is, what do we do about the guilty?" John Paul II made his position clear last January in Saint Louis, she said, when he talked the governor of Missouri into commuting the death sentence of a triple murderer.

She didn't go into as much detail on that event as the New York Times did last Sunday, but nothing in the article would have surprised her. It's a "onetime event," Governor Mel Carnahan declared at the time, trying to cut his losses. But Senator John Ashcroft, his foremost political opponent, promptly held a victims' rights hearing in Saint Louis and invited the family of the killer's victims as star witnesses. Polls showed that Carnahan's display of gallantry would cost him four times as many votes in a Senate race against Ashcroft as he would gain.

Prejean said the "three deepest wounds" in American society are racism, our penchant for scapegoating the poor, and our penchant for trying to solve social problems through violence. Capital punishment, she said, is an emblem of all three. "What has made the death penalty possible is abstraction--you can do anything to people at a remove."

After speaking, Prejean invited questions. In her opening remarks she'd observed that in recent years Illinois "has executed 12 people and had to free 11--an almost 50-50 ratio."

Say what you will about the death penalty, I asked her, but where would those innocent people be without it? They'd still be rotting in prison, wouldn't they? Isn't it the celebrity of death row that attracts the legal champions, the bulldog journalists, and the professors and student investigators who clear their names?

Father Tom Joyce of the 8th Day Center for Justice told me later my question reminded him of a time he'd gone into Menard prison. "I know why you're here," one condemned prisoner told him. "You're here because I have the death penalty. If I had life you wouldn't be here." The prisoner, an innocent man in his 30s who's now free, said he'd appeal and appeal and appeal. But, he added, "If the appeals fail I'd just as soon be executed. I don't want to go down in the hole with those crazy kids."

Prejean didn't buy my premise. "Celebrity!" she replied, aghast at the word. "There are 3,500 people on death row, most of them forgotten." Two days earlier the state of Texas had executed a man she'd spent some time with. "Sixty-five years old. Tears running down his cheek. He didn't even know who his lawyer was....Death row does not mean celebrity status. It just means the locomotive is coming down the track, and you may not have people there to stop it and you're going to be killed."

If they had a mind to, the newspapers of America could create standing task forces whose duty would be to review every capital sentence in their region. These task forces would never be driven by Prejean's presumption that execution is a categorical wrong, a sin. But they could look at the evidence and any mitigating circumstances, and serve as an early-warning system against the grosser injustices.

If newspapers did this, there would probably be fewer death sentences and more convicts condemned on shaky evidence to life behind bars, out of sight and out of mind.

Would that be progress? Prejean was the wrong person to speculate about it, as she lacks a taste for irony and cynicism.

Should POWs Stay Put?

"Milosevic calculated the costs and benefits and quickly concluded that three released POWs would be a small price to pay in exchange for the respectability Jackson could buy his cause on American TV. It was a no-brainer, really."

This was the New Republic's reaction to Jesse Jackson's latest foray into international healing, and plenty of journalists shared it. As often as he was praised for his pluck and initiative, Jackson was told to butt out.

Civilians are comfortable weighing in on the conduct of other civilians, but in times when civilians and servicemen are separate castes, soldiers get a pass. We reflect, there but for the grace of God and Richard Nixon, who wisely abolished the draft, go I. We hang yellow ribbons, and we don't judge.

"Of course, we're all delighted, all Americans are, at the safe return of these young soldiers," said Senator John McCain on Face the Nation May 2. "We're very proud of them, and grateful for--Reverend Jackson for achieving that. I don't approve of freelance diplomacy, but you cannot argue with the result."

Moments later McCain was interrupted so CBS could cut to the German town where the three POWs' plane was about to land. This was journalism as self-conscious deja vu. In 1973 normal programming was suspended so America could watch the return of the POWs from Hanoi. But they'd been prisoners for as long as seven or eight years; they'd become the symbol of a quagmire that had swallowed the nation. The three soldiers captured by Serb forces along the Macedonian-Yugoslavian border and released to Jackson had been held 32 days.

McCain's office faxed me the Face the Nation transcript when I asked what the senator had had to say about the returning men. The reason I'd wondered is that McCain had been held for five and a half years in North Vietnam and been tortured, and had refused to come home early. He's serious about the Code of Conduct, which supposedly guides the behavior of American POWs. It says, "I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy."

If Milosevic took advantage of Jackson, did he take advantage of the three soldiers too? McCain wasn't reachable, so I called Steve Leopold, a Milwaukee attorney. A special forces officer captured in ground combat, Leopold was a prisoner in Vietnam for four years, ten months, and 23 days. "But who counted?" he says. His views on the conduct of prisoners are fixed.

McCain landed in a lake with two broken arms, Leopold told me. The North Vietnamese put him in a room with another prisoner "who fed him and bathed him and emptied his crapper" until he recovered. Sometime later this prisoner made some statements and took early release. McCain hasn't talked to him since.

"He said, 'I don't care if he saved my life. I don't have anything to say to him.' I understand how McCain felt precisely," says Leopold, who saw McCain and his old roommate both interviewed on TV. "But these guys--the Kosovo three--didn't do anything wrong. They didn't appear on Serbian TV. They said nothing and weren't used for propaganda. If they accepted a special favor in being released early, they all accepted it together and did nothing for it. What were they supposed to do--tell Jesse Jackson to go back home? Let me put it this way: If I was in their place and I just had to get on a chopper and fly to Zagreb, I'd have said, 'Where's the chopper?'"

There are different types of POWs, he says. "Some people immediately go into a shell, and it's them and God. They become very religious. That's fine--I'm for whatever works. Some people get by by hating the enemy. The first thing they say every day is 'Fuck you, Victor Charlie.' Some people become filled with deep self-pity."

Those are the ones who eventually collaborate, says Leopold. And then there are the ones like himself. "My allegiance didn't lie with the wealthy chicken hawks who would neither fight nor send their sons to fight in Vietnam but fervently supported poor people being sent to fight that war--though I certainly would not and did not do anything to help the North Vietnamese because I felt that way. My primary allegiance was to the other people in the camps. It was us versus them."

The three soldiers Jackson brought back didn't betray each other, and that's what matters, Leopold believes.

What about Jackson himself?

"As a very liberal Democrat I have certain eccentricities," Leopold says. "One is, whether it's Jimmy Carter or whatever, you never deal with these assholes. But when you don't have a declaration of war, individual citizens can do what they want. It's accepted policy in the second half of the 20th century. Maybe if the pope had done more of it in World War II..."

The war over Kosovo has brought back memories of the years in camp when his ration was three Albanian cigarettes a day. Baratis, they were called. They were awful. And those smokes were about all he knew of the region until this war began. "We're going to fight a war to protect a people nobody gave a flying fuck about in this century," he says. "I guess I support it. Somebody should have gone into Germany in 1938 after Kristallnacht and said, 'Hitler, you're a bad guy,' and shot him in the head. And because nobody did it, World War II occurred.

"This to me is the lesson of the millennium. We aren't going to have these vast forced migrations of people. Everybody gets to stay where they are and work it out. This idea of genocide and forced migration to some shithole somewhere--its time is passed. And Americans don't give anybody any lectures about it, because it's what we did to the American Indians. But it's over and done, and nobody's going to do it anymore."

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