Film noir: Troy Davis and the American way

In another few days yet one more miserable insect—pardon me, where are my manners? One more black man will be put to death by the greatest country with the greatest justice system in the world, the U.S. of A.

And here I am, yet another writer, meditating—for what else can one do?—on this very commonplace event in the history of the U.S. justice system, the impending execution of a black man, Troy Davis, and on what his approaching fate says about us as a people.

What is it about us Americans and punishment? Certainly we continue overwhelmingly to support the death penalty, even though the days are past when men and women, in their thousands, thronged to watch an end be put to the life of a fellow human being. Then is ours now a secret vice, like onanism? Perhaps we derive a secret pleasure from the very idea of punishment, even though modern standards of civilization, a plague upon them, forbid us to gloat openly as of yore, have picnics and parties as we used to do, you know, a nice day out with the wife and kiddies? Teach the little ones first-hand about how the wheels of justice turn and how to enjoy the spectacle of strange fruit suspended, quivering, from a gibbet?

But I overlook our Puritan ancestors and their legacy that taught us how both our vices and pleasures must be decently straitjacketed, garbed decorously in the raiment of necessity and virtue. While the hand beneath tugs urgently at blood-engorged genitalia and tiny beads of perspiration gather on the brow in anticipation of the approaching climax, the eyes remain grave, the lips continue to utter pieties, the upper body remains decorously and even pompously still. So it is with the pleasures of many of us in this greatest of nations; so it is, too, with our secret vices. For what are vices but pleasures that we are fain to hide? And what a pleasure it is, isn’t it, to punish another—how our scalps tighten, how the blood surges to our vitals, how our very nerves twitch and tingle at the prospect of approaching punishment as at the prospect of approaching orgasm. There isn’t, one would think, that much of a gulf between enjoyment and sin, is there? No wonder so many of us are so suspicious of pleasure. Our Puritan ancestors taught us well; they knew what they were talking about.

It might surprise us, were we to dwell on the connection, how much of what we love and honour flows directly from the suffering of others. As Americans, we honour soldiers as “heroes,” even though these men and women set out to invade the lands of those who never did us any harm, and to whom the words “911” mean exactly nothing at all. Yet the more innocent people we kill and maim and incinerate, the higher rises our respect, nay, our adoration, of our beloved troops, and the more overblown and grotesque our pride in ourselves as a “great nation” “the leader of the free world” “a beacon of democracy” and any amount of similarly clichéd balderdash one cares to trump up.

Yet in this great bastion nation beacon shining light of liberty and justice and freedom for all, we’ve maintained one of our time-honoured American traditions—the punishment, by execution or imprisonment—of the poor, especially of the non-white poor, and most especially of the African-American poor. We don’t feel quite American, if you know what I mean, our red blood corpuscles don’t thump and pulse with quite as much vigour, unless we can sacrifice at frequent intervals a poor and/or black man at the altar of our criminal justice system.

Criminal justice system? Now there’s a Freudian slip for you. Never mind that grave doubts continue to exist about Troy Davis’ guilt. Never mind that appeals for the commutation of his sentence have poured in from as far away as Europe and South Africa, from individuals as distinguished as Nobel Peace Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, Ravi Shankar and Sister Helen Prejean, and legal experts such as William Sessions. The NAACP points to “overwhelming evidence that calls into question his guilt, and repeated attempts at justice.” Amnesty International “believes that this is one in a long line of cases in the USA that

should give even ardent supporters of the death penalty pause for thought. For it provides

further evidence of the danger, inherent in the death penalty, of irrevocable error.” Never mind all of that; we are still the country that values freedom and justice above all else, especially when we are about exercise that freedom to execute a black and economically underprivileged man.

No poor black man in this country can take the life of a white individual, even if in self-defence, and expect to live free. But we have progressed further. A poor black man who comes under suspicion of having killed a white man can expect the great ponderous machinery of the law to begin rolling inexorably against him until his life or his spirit or both have been crushed under its weight. Troy Davis is only one black man who is finding this out the hard way. There have been many before him; no doubt there will be many after.

But let us see if we can turn off our seemingly endless fount of pious cant for a moment and make room for a few ugly truths. Truths indeed so hideous in their festering, gibbering, pus-filled forms that veil them and explain them away as we might, their loathsome stink yet creeps forth abroad. This is a country built on racism and genocide, on the most massive land grab in history and on the trafficking of human souls and bodies for profit as though they were so many pounds of potatoes. A nation built on two of the most horrendous crimes in history cannot escape that legacy unless it first faces up to it. And that we have never done; that we shall never do. We will never admit that a country that prides itself on freedom was founded on that same freedom being denied to others. We will not admit that we have kept the original owners of this land, the Native people, as prisoners and forced them to beg for the barest of rights on their own soil. We do not speak of the silent, unacknowledged apartheid that rests upon the reluctance of so many millions of white people to interact with black people, to befriend them, to live side-by-side with them, to accord them the respect and honour due to equal human beings.

Let us face for once what so much of white America truly feels in its innermost heart but cannot admit because such an admission is no longer socially acceptable. But just because a thing is no longer spoken of aloud does not mean it has ceased to exist in the hearts of men and women. White America (or a significant part of it) distrusts, despises and dislikes black America, thinking of the latter as a horde of freeloaders, drug-pushers, and hustlers, as cutthroats waiting to relieve you of your wallet or your life on a dark night or on a lonely street—in short, as a dark, amorphous, undifferentiated mass in which no trace of humanity is any longer distinguishable and which can therefore evoke no spark of reciprocal human sympathy to lighten its formlessness. Once we understand this prevailing attitude of one race towards another, it becomes a lot easier to grasp why so many black men are imprisoned for long periods for minor offenses and why so many are put to death in spite of their guilt being less than certain.

There you have a very real, and very seldom acknowledged reason, why Troy Davis, an African-American, has been held in prison for over 20 years and now may suffer the ultimate brutality of having his life snuffed out for a crime he may well never have committed. There you have the reason why this man, for whom no physical evidence exists linking him to the crime, and in whose case key witnesses have since recanted, is still to die. And why Johannes Mehserle, a white police officer who shot an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant, in broad daylight as the victim lay face down, surrounded by law enforcement, in the presence of numerous witnesses, walked free in a few months. This is the American reality four decades after the Civil Rights Movement.

It is necessary that a few black men die every so often for our pleasure, so that we can continue to beat our collective ego-chests and congratulate ourselves on justice being done, even as we perpetuate our long tradition of paradoxes that seem to define us as a people: the “greatest” country in the world is nothing but its greatest terror and bully; freedom is predicated (literally) on the legacy of slavery and domination, what we view as justice is too often its horrific miscarriage.

Troy Davis must die so that our illusions about ourselves may live.

Let me make a humble suggestion. If we are so proud of what we are doing to Davis, why not let this noble deed be performed in the open, as in the good old days? If justice is all that’s being done, then the more people to witness it the better, right? Don’t we want to bask in the admiration of the international community, whose leaders we proudly claim to be? Surely they can learn from our example. Once exposed to the awesome and solemn spectacle—the might of American justice, they may well feel inspired to rush off and adopt our ways themselves. At the very least, such a spectacle would be educational. Besides, as I have said earlier, we just like vengeance, or, as we like to call it, justice, in this country. Yes, sir, we’re great sticklers for doing the right thing here. A public execution might even improve tourism, and it would certainly be a fun show, and we could all look as solemn as we liked at the regrettable necessity that compels us to perform and/or witness this very sad deed.

How about it, then? Take this show on the road, but stop calling it justice. Call it what it is; a party—a lynching party.

Bring the kids.

Pubali Ray Chaudhuri is an Associate Editor of Intrepid Report.