Sunday, January 17, 2010

Requiem for a Pariah

If I told you that a few months ago that the FBI arrested a man for trading child pornography you might reasonably say "Good". That is what they are supposed to do. Those with a more jaundiced view of law enforcement might wonder if this was a terrible mistake. But all evidence indicates that he was guilty of this crime. He even confessed to it.

If I told you that several days ago he hanged himself in jail, you might say "Good riddance". We, the law abiding tax-payers are spared the expense of a trial and the cost of his incarceration.

So far as you the reader are concerned, this is the end of the story. Justice is served. But it isn't. Not for me. You see, I knew this man.

He was my age, graduated high school the same year as me. We met through a re-enactment group and were both involved in the same community theater. He was not what I would call a close friend but rather part of that larger social circle I seemed to have when I was younger. I might see him several times a week. either at events, at rehearsal or even socially. At the time I knew him best he didn't exhibit any kind of strange or suspicious behavior. I have heard some say "there was always something about him..." but that is nonsense.

As time passed we saw less and less of each other until we only spoke perhaps once a year at an event we both attended. In the years between our golden youth and adulthood something obviously changed. I don't know when it happened and I never will. And to you, it isn't even a question worth asking. After all, he committed a crime, and one that society deems quite unforgivable.

News of his arrest spread quickly. And once the nature of his crime was revealed he became a non-person. He was not spoken of other than "Did you hear about...?" and a silence. There are no traces of him on social network sites. He became a pariah. I supposed I was no different than anyone else. I wanted to write to him, though I'm not sure why. But I had no idea who to ask about it. More importantly, I wasn't sure what I would say.

And now he's gone.

But there was a man, and the story of his life was more than the crime he was guilty of. When I knew him he was always an active debater. Always challenging, always questioning. He was passionate about justice and fairness. He enjoyed being part of a team, not grandstanding. He worked several crappy jobs like everybody else. He joined the Army, served honorably and went to college. He eventually went to law school and passed the bar.

He became a public defender. He married and had a child of his own.

These last two details seem to make the matter even more disturbing, more reprehensible. He above all knew that what he did was illegal, and immoral. But did that make him an irredeemable person?

To you the answer might be an unequivocal "Yes". The people who left comments on the newspapers website thought so when the story was posted. "Shoot the f@cker!" , "sick POS", "burn in hell" they yelled. He betrayed the trust his friends and co-workers put in him. He betrayed his wife. He crossed a line and having done so is deserving of our scorn without any pity. To some, it is an easy decision. To me that question is not so easily answered.

How can I conceive of such a thing? How can I believe there is anything worthwhile to this person? Because in my lifetime I have known people who also broke the law and committed unsavory deeds. I've known alcoholics, thieves and drug addicts. I have even known murderers. And in getting to know them I have found some to have redeemed themselves. They have led good lives. They are, at their core, good people. After paying their debts they clawed their way back to a life that was worth living.

Could my friend have been redeemed? Some would say no. And I will not try to change their minds. It is only because I knew him for so long that I even consider it a possibility. It's because he was always willing to play the devils advocate that I speak up on his behalf, rather than consigning him to a silent death. It seems only fair that a man who defended others should himself have someone say something on his behalf. Not to defend what he did nor ask for people to forgive him but merely to declare that there was once a man, a flawed man, true, but man who was greater than the sum of his sins.

My opinion, I suppose, counts for nothing. In the end, he judged himself more harshly than we, or the law ever could.

It's all over now. And nothing good came of it all.

Goodbye Sean.