Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Quality of Mercy

Those who follow my blog will remember that this past May, in a series of entries, I followed the forensic excavation that took place at the Barker Ranch in Death Valley, California, where Charles Manson and his followers purportedly buried up to three murder victims in 1968 or 1969 (no bodies were found). The latest development in the ongoing Manson saga occurred yesterday, in Sacramento, where the parole board heard the plea for compassionate release for terminally ill former Manson family member Susan Atkins. The 12-member California Board of Parole voted unanimously to deny her request for compassionate release, which would have allowed her to die outside of prison. With the petition denied, the process that would have allowed her to do that is over, meaning that she will surely die behind bars, in what doctors say will be the next few months.

Surely it is well known that Atkins (now 60) played a central role in the Tate-LaBianca murders in a violent two-night rampage in the Los Angeles area in August 1969. Convicted of murder, she has served 37 years in prison. Now ill with brain cancer, with one leg amputated and the other paralyzed, doctors report Atkins has only a few months to live. According to an article posted on the Los Angeles Times website yesterday,

The initial request for release consideration was made by doctors and prison officials after it was determined that Atkins had less than six months to live. Officials at her prison in Chino approved her release, as did officials at corrections headquarters in Sacramento. “She can't care for herself, she can’t feed herself or even sit up in bed by herself,” said her attorney, Eric P. Lampel. In addition to the cancer, Atkins had her leg amputated. “The reality is, even if she gets this compassionate release, she won’t leave her hospital room.”

The reports indicate that Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (and author of Helter Skelter) supported Atkins' release largely because of her failing health. According to yesterday’s report,

In an e-mail to Atkins’ attorney in support of her release, he [Bugliosi] wrote that the notion that “just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her” was wrong, Bugliosi said.

I strongly agree with Bugliosi: mercy is an essential part of our very humanity. (Perhaps Bugliosi had in mind Nietzsche's insight, that if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.) Vengeance is sweet, but it is not justice. Justice is not the issue here. Justice, in the sense of punishment, already has been enacted by the State. Atkins' petition should ask us not simply to rehearse the heinousness of her crimes: they have been endlessly reiterated in sensation-mongering documentaries and true crime books, so there's little need for me to review them yet again. Rather, her situation requires us to listen to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." If vengeance is sweet, mercy is sweeter, as Portia said in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d [constrained=forced]
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice . . . .
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

As Shakespeare reminds us, when we ourselves ask for mercy, we hope and pray to receive it. Why is it so easy to withhold it from another? Are there those among us so accursed that they are beyond the act of mercy? Is there no shred of humanity in them? To paraphrase Bugliosi: Just because she showed no mercy doesn't require or demand us to act likewise. Moreover, I think Shakespeare anticipates an insight that Dostoevsky made in Crime and Punishment, and one we are well to remember: there is no justice in this world ("in the course of justice, none of us/Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy"). If we all got what we deserved--if we all got what's really coming to us--none of us would be saved. Most certainly this understanding is essential to the Christian message: Christ tempers justice with mercy, and if you don't hold to that, then you're not a Christian. Make no mistake, dear reader: all our sins shall be remembered--yours as well as mine.

Soon, in so many days, she shall be no more. And perhaps you shall imagine, then, that justice has been done. But if you hold any sort of religious belief, then she shall be judged--in a method and manner that you and I cannot conceive: the wind bloweth where it listeth. The act of grace is beyond you and me. But mercy is not, and that's the real issue: these events reflect on you, the disposition of your own self, not on one who has already inherited the accursed share.


Bent said...

Mercy and forgiveness are not always the most highly valued virtues in the US. I agree that in the case of Atkins, mercy could be extended without any risk or harm. One wonders whether she does not continue after all these years to be a victim, first of Manson's manipulations, now of the continued hatred and fear of this dark American icon.

For more work on Manson as an icon of transgression, see my lecture page...

Fred said...

In a strange coincidence, while California was denying compassionate release to Atkins, who no longer poses a threat to any living creature in her condition and (as I understand it) is very remourseful for the actions she took almost 40 years ago next month, Israel released convicted terrorist and child murderer Samir Kuntar to a hero's welcome in his native Lebanon as part of a prisoner exchange. Kuntar, who is a very healthy 45, shows no remourse for his actions and vowed to continue his terrorist activities on behalf of his cause. The Lord does work in mysterious ways...