05 September 2009

Flawed heroes, redemption, and forgiveness

I've picked up on a recurring theme in certain current events of the past couple of months. What I've noticed are several instances of controversial figures eliciting very divided responses from the general public. Let me explain by way of offering a few examples.

A few weeks ago, the Scottish government released Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted in connection with the Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight in December of 1988 that killed 270 people. Scotland has a policy of “compassionate release” whereby the government may release a prisoner ahead of his or her scheduled release date for a variety of reasons, and the government examines each case individually. Al-Megrahi was diagnosed with an advanced stage prostate cancer, and will in all likelihood die within a few months at most. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, decided to release him from prison so that he could travel home to Libya and die there. This decision prompted outcries from both governments and individuals who lost relatives and loved ones in the bombing.

Al-Megrahi had shown no remorse for his actions (although he did continue to insist on his innocence, and questions remain about his actual participation in the terrorist plot). He received what amounted to a hero's welcome upon his return to Libya. At worst, he is a cold-blooded terrorist; at best, he is a man whose warped sense of religion and ideology permits him to consider the deaths of 270 innocent souls as unworthy of his grief. Either way, he seems a reprehensible character. Secretary MacAskill noted all of this in his statement explaining his decision to release Al-Megrahi, but then asserted that the evilness of this one person should not be allowed to define or control his own decision. You can read the full text of his statement, but here's the most relevant excerpt.

In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people. The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.

Mr Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.

But, that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.

Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.

Many people (including those in my own faith community with whom I spoke about this) did not find this explanation to be an adequate justification for Al-Megrahi's release. I'm still not entirely sure what I would have done had I been in Secretary MacAskill's position, but if nothing else, his decision shows a steadfast commitment to certain values of mercy and compassion that cannot be trumped by evil and hatred, and by that if nothing else I am moved. Didn't Jesus teach us to love those who hate us, and to repay evil with love? In the rest of his statement MacAskill makes it clear that he neither forgives nor forgets Al-Megrahi's crimes; he simply refuses to allow himself or his people to be defined by them.

Then there's the case of Michael Vick, football quarterback and despicable thug, who spent the last year or so of his life behind bars for the cruel crime of running dogfights. After his release, Vick applied for reinstatement in the NFL so that he could resume his multi-million dollar superstar career. Many commentators objected to this, arguing that to allow Vick back into the league after committing such cruel and despicable acts would be tantamount to sweeping his crimes under the Astroturf. What's more, even though he has publicly apologized and acknowledged his wrongdoings, many doubt his sincerity. These same commentators argue that allowing Vick to return to the sport sends the wrong message – that if you're athletically talented, you can get away with most anything and still wind up rich and famous.

But I think that line of criticism misses the mark. Vick did, in fact, pay the appropriate penalty for his crimes – he served the sentence imposed on him by our justice system. Other prisoners are allowed to go back to work in their professions after their release (with certain exceptions, of course). The fact that Vick's line of work happens to make him, as a professional athletic superstar, something of a role model for our society's youth doesn't say anything about Vick himself, but it does say a good deal about us as a society. Why do kids emulate someone like Vick more so than, say, Yo-Yo Ma or Neil deGrasse Tyson? This isn't Vick's fault. As the saying goes, “Don't hate the player – hate the game.”

Most recently, Senator Ted Kennedy's death was the occasion for many retrospectives on his life. Some portrayals lionized him as a champion of the poor and downtrodden, while others vilified him for being a besotted womanizer (the latter always referencing Chappaquiddick). As is often the case, the reality of Ted Kennedy was more nuanced than either of these simplistic portraits. It is true that Kennedy enjoyed a stiff drink or three, and his reputation as a skirt-chaser was not unfounded. And yes, he was probably at least partially responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. It's also true, however, that in his Senate career he established himself as a hard-working legislator, a crusader for civil rights and justice, and perhaps most surprisingly, a bipartisan Senator willing to work with colleagues from both sides of the aisle where he could find agreement.

Kennedy was not a perfect human being – far from it. Neither was he completely and utterly irredeemable. He was, in short, a flawed hero, as were so many of the classical Greek heroes that he and his brothers often cited. The key here, though, is that Kennedy continued to grow, to learn from his mistakes, and to commit himself to working toward the betterment of humanity and society. In a remarkable speech he gave in 1991, when facing a serious re-election challenge and having lost much of the faith and trust of his constituents, Kennedy acknowledged his failings and rededicated himself to improving both the world and himself. "Individual faults and frailties are no excuse to give in - and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves. Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too. And in this life, those endeavors are never finished."

I take hope from this statement, as it reminds me that despite my own failings (of which there are too many to catalog), I am yet not released from my obligation to strive for something more. None of us is without flaws and failings, yet none of us is allowed to stop trying. We will not achieve perfection or complete enlightenment, but we are called to continue to continue on toward these. We are not yet bodhisattvas, but we are called to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, and as Kennedy's brother Robert was fond of saying, we must always strive to make gentle the life of this world.


Michael said...

I appreciate your reflections and introspections.
I was also moved by Secretary MacAskill's statement and I believe his actions are a positive sign about putting Jesus's teachings into action.
I also agree that none of us are perfect and that we all need to continually strive to be better people and to help others that are less fortunate.

Jan said...

My 1st response to al-Megrahi's release was, yes, release him, he's dying, vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord, etc. But what is my rationale? I noticed a flaw, for if we are simply to love those who hate us, show mercy, etc., why not release him from the outset--i.e., without punishing him at all? Then I reflected on how it's decided that some individuals should be out on bond pending trial, or be given probation, or released early on parole. Wouldn't those decisions be based on the likelihood of the individuals concerned doing further harm? And isn't that a reason individuals who have done harm are kept apart from society? (i.e., not only for punishment). Well, then, applying that in the present case, what about al-Megrahi's current potential for harm? He's sick and dying; probably not going to lead a terrorist band or teach terrorists. There's the "hero's welcome," but I read Gaddafi's government cut it short because of playing up to the West at that time. So al-Megrahi apparently will not become a cause celebre for terrorists. So, all-in-all, probably there was little capacity for harming more innocent civilians. So...mercy in this case. That's my rationale.