A year or two ago I saw a plainspoken philosopher speaking to Bill Moyers about our culture of cruelty. I forget the insightful man’ s name, but I will never forget his comment after playing a clip of a campus cop nonchalantly walking along a row of seated peaceful college protesters and spraying them in their faces with orange mace from a huge, seemingly inexhaustible, canister. The campus cop did this with the body language of somebody watering a garden with a hose.
“He’s doing this like it’s a normal thing to do,” said the philosopher calmly, but with appropriate horror. He then showed a campus police force with a tank, surplus from our many recent and ongoing wars. He detailed the widespread militarization of police forces all over the country, essentially an army of occupation in the many slum areas of our great nation. Heavily armed SWAT teams in flak jackets and combat helmets, wielding automatic weapons, breaking down doors and storming in to break up illegal card games, apprehend dangerous people who are bagging marijuana.
Normal. A frightening word in many ways, when you think of what is normal today. It is normal for very wealthy people to want and be able to own everything, there is no shame attached to this normal desire, no matter the consequences. It is normal for an angry or frightened person to defend himself with a gun — he now has a right to “stand his ground” in many states, even if he went looking for trouble and the ground he is standing on is far from his home and castle, the traditional boundaries of where he has long been free to defend himself with deadly force, if he could not flee to safety. It is normal, depending on where you’re from, to kill your unmarried daughter or sister if she exchanges flirtatious glances with a man. Honor killing, it’s normally called.
It was normal, in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson, with his gift for a felicitous phrase, was putting together The Declaration of Independence, the charter of American democracy that lit the torch of human freedom, for people of means to own other people as property. We hold these truths, being wise men capable of holding more than one truth at a time, to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and so forth, and that, at the same time, we may hold great, easily liquidated, wealth in the form of human chattel. I myself, he might have added, presently own a few hundred of them and I love ’em.
Of course, when I write this way it is easy to nitpick: nobody likes Honor Killing, or the grotesque inequalities between the 1% and the rest of society (except, perhaps, most of the 1%), or the American plague of carnage by gun masquerading as Constitutionally protected freedom (except for millions of American gun owners, the NRA and the politicians they purchase or rent), or slavery, for that matter. But there is another side to these things, normal though they may also be, that makes discussing them a bit more complicated. To denounce terrible things on the internet is about the easiest exercise there is. Why not challenge myself, you ask?
OK. Thomas Jefferson, it is safe to presume by his writings, had much better intentions than he was able to live out, though his life was, in most outward respects, normal and respectable for a wealthy Virginian of his time. He probably truly loved the beautiful, light-skinned mother of his four children born over the course of their long affair. Although each of these children was born nine months after a Jefferson stay on Monticello, each looked white and at least one had a striking resemblance to Thomas Jefferson, even though Sally was his chambermaid, even though each of the children was given preferred work in the manor house, and all were eventually freed (virtually the only of Jefferson’s slaves to have been released from bondage) the master’s patrimony of Beverly, Madison, Eston and Harriet Hemings was indignantly denied for 150 years after Jefferson’s death — and to this day, by some, almost 200 years later, in spite of the DNA match and other strong evidence.
In a better world he would have married his devoted servant, a delicate and cultured woman fluent in French, as Jefferson was, loved her openly, embraced and educated his children and grandchildren by her. In this world he quietly freed the slave children by letting the first couple escape when they came of age to do so — they looked white and were easily able to “pass” and assimilate into the racist society of the time– and freed the others in his will. He had promised the slave mother, Sally, in exchange for the pregnant teenager’s agreement to leave freedom in Paris and return to Monticello as his slave, that he would free their children at 21 and he kept his word. Sally too was discreetly freed not long after Jefferson’s death. I have always held these deplorable things (excluding, of course, the promises he kept) against the Author of Liberty.
Here are a few little known but devilish details that help explain Jefferson’s dilemma. Under Virginia law at the time, had Jefferson freed Sally she could not have remained in Virginia beyond a year and a day. It would have meant parting with his long-time lover or seeking a court-order allowing her to stay, and giving good reasons in the court filing for this dispensation from the law. The publicity would have destroyed Jefferson’s career.
Here’s an even more devilish detail: Jefferson’s mentor and lifelong friend George Wythe had, after his wife’s death, a love affair with a one-time slave of his, Lydia Broadnax. Wythe freed her, got the legal paperwork in order so that she could stay in Virginia, and may have had a son by her (this is Fawn Brodie’s conclusion, disputed by others based on Broadnax’s age when the child was born). What is undisputed is that the free-born mulatto Michael Brown was tutored by Wythe, that the teenager was very devoted to Wythe and that the aged Wythe provided well for him and Lydia Broadnax in his will.
Learning of this, Wythe’s grandnephew, who had stolen valuable books from Wythe’s library and forged Wythe’s name on checks, outraged on being written out of the will, his inheritance going to people then normally known as niggers, promptly poisoned Brown, Wythe and Lydia Broadnax, killing both men. They died agonizing deaths over the course of almost two weeks. The woman survived, but was prevented by Virginia law from testifying in court to seeing what she understood too late: the young man putting arsenic in the coffee. Other blacks had seen the grandnephew dispose of arsenic before his arrest and from his prison cell (he apparently had a lot of it) but they also were prevented by Virginia law from testifying in court.
The murder trial in Virginia was attended by great publicity, and Wythe’s grandnephew, skillfully defended by zealous attorneys, glad for the exclusion of black eyewitness accounts and using inside knowledge of the perfunctory autopsies to create reasonable doubt, was acquitted of all charges. You can imagine the outrage in Virginia had a white man been sentenced to death for killing the sort of people Wythe’s grandnephew had killed. George Wythe, although a famous and respected legal mind, one of the greatest Virginians of his day, signer of the Declaration of Independence, beloved of Thomas Jefferson, recipient of the largest funeral in Virginia up to that time, was also someone who taught Greek and law to a free black boy, and treated the kid like a son, after all.
If Jefferson had a sudden, crazy, fleeting thought about marrying Sally and legitimizing their children, the last chapter in George Wythe’s distinguished life story would have put an end to that.
And so it goes with each of these “normal” things. There are reasons, always. Even if the reasons are later seen to be immoral, insane, vicious– they are the underpinnings of law at the time, they form the moral norms of the era.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, when Israel used a drone to blow up a car and execute some people Israel claimed were terrorist masterminds, there was a lot of controversy over this extrajudicial killing. For one thing, it was illegal under international law at the time. It is one thing for a team of daring secret agents to get up close to cunning, uncapturable terrorist masterminds (or, depending on your view, freedom fighters), through skill, guts and determination, and quietly inject them with something to induce a heart attack. Or slit their throats. Or sabotage the brakes on their car before engaging them in a high speed car chase over dangerous terrain. It is a different thing altogether to have a robotic plane flying by remote control to distant places to kill people who are blips on a computer screen.
Again, when Israel first practiced these extrajudicial executions by drone, it was extremely controversial. Today it is perfectly normal, as plain and unobjectionable as a glass of cool, pasteurized milk. The president of the United States today looks at a list of names of people to be killed extrajudicially and says “go ahead.” One day one of the names on the kill list is of an American citizen whose father has brought a lawsuit in US federal court to stop the expected killing by drone. The president, in this case, consults with legal experts, decides there is a perfectly valid exception under American law, the killing is legally justifiable, and, anyway, no court will ever hear the case. Done— kill him. A week or two later the guy’s teenage son, also an American citizen, shows up on the list — or maybe not. “What the fuck?” reasons the president, if he hesitates at all, and on his order the strike is carried out and the American kid is also killed. We’ll never know how it went, since everything to do with the kill lists is highly classified.
“He should have been more careful when choosing his fucking father, the little bitch!” was the administration’s entire public response to the question of how do you kill an American boy with absolutely no ties to terrorism? The president’s press secretary said it smirkingly when asked about the execution of the boy and three friends who were eating at an outdoor cafe in some remote region of Yemen. A total of eight were killed by that missile, we’ll never know who the others were, except that, apparently none were the target, an Egyptian al-Queda member.
In a perfect world, I walk up to the press secretary, clench my right hand and break his nose. “You can give a better answer than that,” I would tell him encouragingly, helping him up off the floor like the nonviolent devotee of Ahimsa that I am. Then the White House press corps and the international TV audience would get the real answer.
“We killed him by mistake, we had no good reason for killing him… his name was never on the kill list, he was collateral dam…. uh, he was another innocent civilian killed in our endless, borderless war against Terror, I mean… one of perhaps thousands of nameless, faceless people killed for the crime of living somewhere our intelligence determines is also home to those who hate our freedom enough to plot to murder us. It just happens we later learned his name, and that he was a 16 year-old American, that he’d done nothing wrong, and that he was killed with other boys who probably had nothing to do with terrorism, along with four others who it is not worth talking about. Look, mistakes are made… the passive voice used…. oh, goddamn it, leave me alone!!!”
That would have been a perfectly normal reaction. Much more normal, at any rate, than what I have been doing so far today.