An Adolescent Choice

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

The details quicken the pulse and keep the crime alive. Two teenage girls walking home on a June night in 1993 in Houston happen into a pack of drunk young men; they’re gang-raped, beaten, dragged to the woods and strangled — one with her own shoelace, one with a belt and, when she doesn’t quickly die, a shoe pressed into her windpipe.

Thanks to a legal irony that has pitted George Bush against his home state and the Texas-style justice he championed as governor, the case of one of the confessed killers, Jose Medellin, who is on death row, also remains alive, a lifetime later.

I’d prefer not to be writing about this matter. I’d prefer to know nothing about it at all. I grope in my own turmoil for something in it that makes sense, for some possibility, not of justice — of what value is justice in such a loss? — but of healing, and divine only that healing is a shrug, a systemic afterthought, a blank stare from the “competing interests” in this case.

This column is addressed to that blank stare.

The deaths of the girls — 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman and 16-year-old Elizabeth Pena, who had been taking a shortcut home from a friend’s house, who, we are told, begged for their lives, who were murdered by thugs so clueless about what they’d done that one of them kept as a souvenir the younger girl’s Mickey Mouse watch — cry out, across the years, for something more than the law or politics or any institution or ideology seems capable of bringing to bear on the tragedy.

The crime is back in the news because the government of Mexico has brought suit in the International Court of Justice (also known as the World Court) against the United States, charging that Medellin, who is a Mexican citizen, was not allowed to contact the Mexican consulate at the time of his arrest, as stipulated in the 1963 Vienna Convention — which protects anyone arrested on foreign soil, including approximately 6,000 U.S. citizens a year.

The state of Texas, of course, wants to execute Medellin, but its indignation at being thwarted in its dispensation of ultimate justice is muddied by the fact that the administration of George Bush — who as governor of Texas signed 152 death warrants — has weighed in on the side of the World Court, a body it would normally not hesitate to ignore. Ted Cruz, the state’s solicitor general and a key adviser in Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, is aghast and said this sets, good God, a dangerous precedent for presidential power.

The Bush administration is interfering with states’ rights, Cruz said, though he did not add that “states’ rights” have historically been the cover for crimes against humanity. That may not be true in this case, but the subplot created by Medellin’s nationality and immigration status certainly fuels the passions of many who want to see him executed, and co-opts the tragedy of the girls’ deaths for a larger cause.

On the other side of the death-penalty divide, Medellin himself pleads his case — and solicits pen pals — from the Web site (sponsored by the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty).

Regarding the crime that has put him on death row, he says only, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m where I’m at because I made an adolescent choice. . . . If you think you can have an open heart to get to know who I’ve become not what I was. Then after that I’ll be willing to tell you who the boy was that got himself arrested for capital murder. That way you can have a clear understanding of how far I have come.”

Reading his site with an awareness of what he participated in 14 years ago, reading him describe the murders as “an adolescent choice,” I could think of little more than the term Hannah Arendt coined with reference to Adolf Eichmann: the banality of evil.

I say this not because I lack sympathy for death-row inmates or for Medellin in particular, but because I cannot help but imagine the emotional shrapnel such uncomprehending words would set off in anyone who loved Jennifer or Elizabeth. I am anti-death penalty, but I understand why the parents of Jennifer Ertman have filed a court brief that says, “Enough is enough,” and argues for the execution to proceed.

We still live by Hammurabi’s Code. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. It’s all we have, and it’s not enough. Execution may bring closure and a sense of hollow satisfaction, but I would wish so much more for those who grieve these deaths and all the others — for the Iraqis who grieve the deaths that have accompanied our criminal invasion and occupation. Even if forgiveness is anathema, I would wish for them the transforming peace that accompanies forgiveness. Let the killers live but let them live in unrelenting awareness of the lives they destroyed, the hearts they tore. Let them devote their lives to peace.

In such circumstances, I know what I would want: I’d want the world to change.