There’s Just A Meanness In This World


As obstreperously opposed to the death penalty as I remain, it is nevertheless difficult to feel uncomplicated emotions regarding the execution of John Allen Muhammad.

I –and any individual living in or around the D.C. area– was in the line of fire, so to speak, during this disturbed man’s killing spree in the fall of 2002. I was one of the people looking over my shoulder while I pumped my gas. I was the guy debating whether or not that Home Depot run should be postponed. I was the guy who thought: as if getting killed on my morning commute was not absurd enough, I have to worry about this? I was, finally, the guy who decided that, not unlike it feels when you step onto that plane, if your number is up, your number is up. It was not defiance, and it was not any kind of bravery; it was simply a refusal to stop living my way because I was afraid of dying.

Crimes of passion are easier to analyze. Momentary lapse of reason; a boiling point reached due to betrayal or provocation. Manslaughter is a similar case (ever notice how manslaughter is also man’s laughter?). These things, however tragic or repugnant, have some sort of cause and effect, you can see where point A picked up a gun or a knife or a drunk-driving key in the ignition, and made its indelible way to point B.

But a serial killer? (And let’s not sugarcoat it. Sniper? That depiction sterilizes things too much by half. Imagine if someone you loved was the random victim of this depraved sociopath, would it not be more than a little insulting to say they were killed by a sniper? Unless you are killed in action in a war –itself a complicated and appalling scenario– it’s simply inappropriate to use the term “sniper” to describe a citizen deciding that it is, on any level, tolerable to put innocent civilians in the crosshairs).

And then there are the sociological implications. Did this killer have a terrible, tortured life? Perhaps. Is there ever a circumstance where it’s acceptable to take out random, unknowing human beings to…what? Prove a point? Strike a blow against an uncaring world? Inscribe one’s name in the permanent record? Find perverse meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe? To paradoxically feel alive by taking another person’s life? All of the above? Some? None? The answer to this question, of course, is that it is an affront to any reasonable code of conduct to declare oneself the arbiter of life and death. End of story.

And so, is it the place of society to determine, once the evidence has been counted and corroborated, that this human insect –this remorseless, yet undeniably disturbed– shell of a man deserves to die? Is it justice? Is it an Old Testament type of quid pro quo? Is it a plain matter of ensuring that he would never hit the streets and take another life? All of the above? None?

Was there any benefit, on any level, of ensuring that this man remained alive? Did he have a book to write, entreaties to make of the families he destroyed, wisdom to impart from the dark depths of his fractured heart? Had he descended to a spiritual place that obviated the possibility of redemption? More to the point, did he care? Who gains from his eradication from this planet? And more to the point, who cares? Do we require answers, or insight, when it comes to a human being who –for whatever myriad reasons– determined that his pain, or confusion, or nihilistic impulse, compelled him to kill other human beings?

Are we going to shed a tear for this psycho?

Of course not. At least not until our eyes are dry from the ceaseless drops they should shed for the friends, relatives and families of the folks killed by his hand.

Will it provide closure for any of these people? Obviously not. Just because the murderer is dead does not mean the people he murdered will return to life. And perhaps it is because his death will not restore their lives that the concept of capital punishment seems so absurd, so barbaric. But is there a refined or compassionate way to deal with a person who forfeits his claim on those conditions?

The best answer I can come up with is that there is no answer.

No answer for how to deal with an unapologetic murderer. No answer for the innocent lives he stole. No answer for where that hatred emanated from. No answer for how to handle such a monster in a lawful society. No answer for how I would feel if someone I loved had been cut down for no reason. No answer for the human condition that goes back as far as Cain slaying Abel. No answer for how we got here. No answer for where we are going. No answer other than we all must, in some fashion, hold one another accountable for what we do. No question about right and wrong.

The only remaining question is, what else can we do?


“In my stories is where I live.”

Of few writers can it more accurately be said that it is the work, not the life, that matters…That O’Connor was one of the great writers of the 20th century is now beyond argument.

What he said. He being Jonathan Yardley, writing in Sunday’s Washington Post (farewell Book World, hello expanded Arts & Living section) about Brad Gooch’s new bio of Flannery O’Connor here.

While I’m not certain that we need a 448 page biography of Flannery O’Connor, I’m not certain that we need another biography of any writer, no matter how many pages. Actually, that’s not fair. Who buys these types of books, after all, but people who have already read all (or most) of the works written by the author being dissected (this crucible that is equal parts operating table and shrink’s couch, also known as the contemporary critical biography). Still, I could probably be forgiven for making the unoriginal observation, again, that we exist in an era where the life outweighs the work. That cranky ground was well-trodden upon, and recently, so no need to revisit it.

Wait. The preceding paragraph, while applicable to most writers, does not apply to O’Connor. In point of fact, if there is any writer I would care to read about, and learn from, it would be her. Not surprisingly, her unwavering allegiance to her craft leaves little to the imagination: she wrote, she talked about writing, she thought about writing and she wrote about writing. Allegedly, she ate and slept on occasion. “In my stories is where I live,” she said, a statement applicable on a variety of levels. And so, the people who stand to be fascinated by this distinctly uneventful life are the very people who might be enlightened by reading about it: writers. O’Connor’s life, and her monk-like approach to her vocation could and should be a study guide for all aspiring scribblers. Never mind that dedication like hers is probably impossible to imitate today because of all the noise, electronic and digital, distracting us. There is also the inconsiderable reality that her work is inimitable. The style, the substance, the entire package is pretty much unparalleled in American letters.

I tend to feel uncomfortable throwing the G word around, unless I’m speaking about jazz musicians. But if any writer in the last 100 years could be called a genius, O’Connor is near the top of the short list. She did not manage to write the great American novel (though she may well have, had Lupus not stopped her at the insultingly young age of 45), but her best collected stories go toe-to-toe with any of the great white males (and females for that matter). She also happened to approach perfection on at least three occasions, with “Revelation”, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. It is the last of these three that most people know; like Beethoven’s Fifth and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, its ubiquity tends to diminish its actual import: it’s even better than most people realize (and most people, if for no other reason than that they are told, recognize these things as immortal).

What O’Connor manages to do, in less than twenty pages, is nail the essence of what Dostoyevsky and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy grappled with in their biggest (and sometimes bloated) novels: the nature of man, the existence of God, the possibility of Grace and the symbiotic tension between violence and love. When The Misfit declares (ironically, truthfully) “It’s no real pleasure in life”, he is (O’Connor is) expressing, in remarkably succinct fashion, the fundamental philosophical and literary dilemma, post-Descartes. Beyond whether God exists (Tolstoy) or why God torments us (Dostoyevsky), and right to the heart of the matter: we may betray God, but God betrayed us first.

Anyway, O’Connor remains somewhat of a conundrum: one can learn a great deal by studying her stories. Has any other writer so consistently applied mechanical precision with such emotional heft? Has any other writer wrestled with the so-called big issues without using stick figures or preachy didactics? Take “Revelation”, for instance: O’Connor fits class issues, southern identity dilemmas, religious fervor, old-school bigotry and redemption into one story. In fact, she pretty much pulls it off on a single page (and that last page not only invokes, but obliges the use of such otherwise unforgivable words as “haunting”, “chilling” and “moving”). This type of writing, needless to say, is inspiring but is also intimidating. My initial (and in many cases, ongoing) reaction to reading an O’Connor story is to ask, in awe, “How did she do that?”

Yet aside from the singular example she sets, what is one, living today, to take from her hermetic life style in terms of practical application? Probably the same thing one might take from any worthwhile practitioner: whatever one can. It’s that simple, and it’s that unfathomable. For starters, one should be heartened (or, more likely, devastated) by the fact that even our greatest artists often struggle, and realize that the life they embark upon is likely to be painful and unprofitable. “What first stuns the young writer emerging from college,” she wrote in 1948, “is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.” What she said.