Steven C. Day's "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe"
February 4, 2005
|STEVEN C. DAY'S ARCHIVES|
This is the second half of Episode 29. For the first half, click here.
Last Chance Democracy Café
Five full minutes passed before anyone at the table made another sound.
Then, finally, Horace held out his hand to Winston, and said softly, "Forgive me, friend." His voice was pained, but the old dignity was back. "It was absolutely inexcusable, what I just said to you . . . Absolutely inexcusable."
"My fault completely," replied Winston, shaking Horaceís hand firmly.
"No, of course it wasnít. And I really am sorry. I guess tonight, Chesterís wake, talking to John and all, drained me more than I realized . . ."
" . . . and it dredged up all the old feelings about my son Lester and Vietnam . . ."
" . . . and so I just sort of lost it. Iím just so sick of all the empty talk. We were all against the war here. We all said it would be a disaster, a morass, a bottomless pit. And, of course, we were right, but it doesnít matter. Being right doesnít change anything. Chester is still dead. Theyíre all still dead. And tomorrow more people will be dead. And all of our bellyaching wonít change that one bit."
* * *
Mat Brinklyís right leg used to give him a little trouble, back, that is, when he still had one. It was an old football injury -- a throwback to the glory days, when, as starting quarterback, he led Central High School to a state championship in Division 4A. The bum knee, the result of a clipping type blow during practice in his senior year, had been just bad enough to cost him a college football scholarship, but not quite bad enough to keep him out of the Army Reserves.
He was sitting to Chesterís left in the Humvee when the IED went off to Chesterís right. Who sat on which side hadnít seemed like a particularly big deal back when, in what must now seem to Mat like it was an entirely different world, they headed out on patrol North of Baghdad. Fate does funny things sometimes. You see, Mat was actually supposed to be on the right, with Chester to his left. But because Matís bum knee was bothering him, it was more comfortable for him to sit on the other side. So he asked Chester to switch.
And, when, some 74 minutes later, everything turned as black as it had been that time Matís family visited Carlsbad Caverns, and the ranger flipped off the lights for a few seconds, it was Chester who was killed, and Mat who "escaped" with an above the knee amputation of his right leg.
Having to accept the loss of a limb is an awful thing, especially for a young athletic person. Itís even harder for someone who blames himself for the death of one of his best friends.
A few weeks after the attack, a group of four United States senators visited the military hospital in Germany where Mat was being treated. Mat told the senators his spirits were high. He told them he was hoping he could eventually rejoin his unit in Iraq. He told them everything he thought a brave soldier should say.
The senators told him that his country was proud of him.
Then they returned to Washington, to report to the nation that the morale among injured servicemen was excellent.
That night, Mat couldnít sleep well. It wasnít so much the severity of the pain, as the fact he just couldnít find a comfortable position. The infections to his various shrapnel wounds were giving him fits. He was also worrying about the future, trying to come to terms with the loss of his leg. He wondered what this new, more limited, life would be like. He worried how his girlfriend would react when she saw him now. And he prayed that Chester would forgive him. He prayed that again and again.
And there wasnít a senator anywhere to be found.
* * *
"Bush lied to get us into Iraq," continued Horace. "Nobody really even seriously tries to deny that anymore. And the war itself has been horribly mismanaged, just like you guys were saying. Again, almost everyone agrees, but nothing changes. Bush was still reelected. And now, just about everyone in the government who recognized the truth . . . that the war would be a terrible mistake, is being purged. Meanwhile, the neoconservatives . . . the very people whose lies and misjudgments got us into this mess, are being promoted. Iím with Zach. Where the hell is the justice in any of this?"
Winston patted Horace on the back. "Youíre right. Thereís no justice in it at all. But then, why should that surprise us? I mean, since when, at least lately, has American democracy had anything to do with justice. In 2000, Bush stole the election with the help of the Supreme Court. Good God, weíre not talking about stealing a roll of toilet paper here! He stole the freakiní keys to the White House! And nothing happened! Nothing! Along the way, his people deliberately interfered with the right of black Americans to vote in Florida. And nothing happened. They got away with it. They conducted a carefully coordinated riot to prevent the counting of votes . . ."
"And that worked, too," said Tom, his lips tight, his teeth clenched. "And, of course, once again, no one was ever held accountable. Not one person."
I tossed in a thought. "Katherine Harris gave Republican operatives free run of the Secretary of Stateís office, even letting them use the departmentís computer system, during the recount controversy. She did whatever they told her to do, while claiming all the while that she was acting impartially in upholding the law. And what was her penalty? She got elected to Congress."
Winston added, "And then they gave her a leadership position . . . you know, so she wonít get bored while she waits to run for the Senate."
"Then, in 2002, they slandered Max Cleland, questioning the patriotism of a true American hero," said Tom. "And it worked. It worked like a charm. Then in 2004 they did the same thing with John Kerry. And, again, it worked. And, incredibly, once again they deliberately targeted blacks and other minorities in vote suppression schemes, for example, in Ohio. And, hey, no surprise here, once again, they got away with it."
Horace sighed. "Sometimes it feels as though justice and democracy in America have become like two strangers passing on the way to different gates at an airport, each scarcely aware the other exists. And, when youíre a person who loves democracy the way I do . . . the way I know all you do thatís a hard thing to take under the best of circumstances, but when youíre talking about good people dying because of it . . . like whatís happening in Iraq, well, thatís just almost too much to stand."
It was getting late, just 15 minutes until closing. The crowd had thinned out considerably, only about a dozen people, all of them holdovers from the wake, were still in the lounge. I figured that by this point, everyone was probably pretty much talked out. But I had underestimated the human drive to find at least some measure of Grace.
Zach spoke, "So, are you saying we should just give up on finding justice?" His voice betrayed that this wasnít the answer he wanted.
And, somehow, I think he knew it wasnít the one heíd get.
"Absolutely not," said Horace sternly. "Never give up the fight for justice. Never!"
"Yeah . . . I know what youíre saying, in general, but, I mean, justice specifically for what theyíve done to people like Chester . . . Is that still possible?"
"Itís more than possible."
"But how . . . ? I mean, itís like you said: Bush won reelection. Thatís not justice . . ."
"No, it isnít."
"You said . . . or I guess it was Tom who said, thereís no real chance any of the Bush people will stand trial over Iraq, right?
"So whereís the justice?"
Horace started to speak, stopped, and then finally said, "Zach, will you hang with me for a few minutes while I tell you something thatís a little, well, out there?"
Horace looked at the clock.
"Donít worry," I smiled. "Iíll chance the ticket for staying open a few minutes past closing time."
"Thanks," he smiled back. "Zach, Iím going to let you in on a little secret. Although my minister would probably call me a heretic, Iíve always had a somewhat unorthodox idea about heaven. I like to think that when we die, everyone, sinners and saints alike, all go a reception room located immediately outside the gates of heaven. Now, this reception room is nothing to sneeze at, a beautiful place, with all the amenities, great food and wonderful music . . . better than any resort on Earth. Itís the kind of place where you wouldnít mind staying for a thousand years, which is a good thing, because many people end up staying that long. Itís great. Itís just not quite heaven."
"So how do you get from the reception room into heaven itself?" asked Zach, with a slight smile.
Horace returned the smile. "Itís simple, really," he continued. "In order to get into heaven, you have to do just two things: First, apologize to everyone youíve ever harmed or wronged in any way. And, second, forgive everyone whoís ever harmed or wronged you in any way. In other words, give and receive total truth."
"Okay . . ." said Zach dubiously.
"The thing is, they donít want people bringing dirty baggage into heaven, which could stain the soul of the place. And thereís no dirtier baggage than injustice. So, before letting you into heaven, they make you take it out and wash it. And thereís no better detergent for cleaning up injustice than truth. You follow me?"
"I suppose." Zachís voice was noncommittal.
"Zach, truth telling, standing by itself, can represent a profound form of justice. And when youíre talking about wrongs like this one . . . wrongs committed at the level of national governments that harm thousands upon thousands of people, in the end, truth may be the form of justice that carries the most real impact anyway. Think about it. Since World War II, somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,500 Nazis have been convicted of war crimes. And certainly, it is just and proper that they were tried and punished. But, really, given the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust, was that, by itself, enough to provide justice to the six million Jews killed, not to mention all of the others who suffered?"
"Of course not."
"Of course not, is right. And this isnít to compare Bush to Hitler, which would be stupid, or to compare the events in Iraq with the Holocaust, which would be just as stupid. Itís to make a point about justice. Because the nearest, I think, weíve ever come to providing some measure of justice to the martyrs of that unthinkable crime didnít happen when we punished a few thousand war criminals, as essential as that was. It came when we made certain that the truth of what happened was told, and always will be told."
Zach nodded. "That makes sense. I agree."
"Now, different people find comfort in different visions of heaven, of course. And many people also find, if not comfort, at least a grim satisfaction in imagining a hell, and, I guess, in imagining other people suffering in that hell. Well, to be honest, Iím not much of a believer in hell. And even if I were, Iíd get no satisfaction from imagining Lyndon Johnson burning there as punishment for his role in my sonís death in Vietnam.
"I prefer a different vision. I like to think of Lester, having waited out his turn, finally meeting Johnson face to face: Meeting him not as President to soldier, but man to man, soul to soul. I like to imagine Johnson looking Lester in the eye and saying, ĎSon, I was wrong, and Iím sorry.í And then I like to imagine Lester looking back at him and saying, ĎThank you, Sir. I forgive you.í And with that it would be over and Lester, now unburdened by the injustice of his death, would be ready to go on to heaven."
Winston interjected a lighter note, "What about Johnson, does he get to go?"
Horace smiled. "Oh, donít worry, heíll get there. But it will be awhile . . . for both him and Nixon. They both have a hell of a lot of apologizing to do first."
"And a lot of truth to fess up to," added Tom.
A quiet wave of laughter spread across the lounge. We all appreciated the release.
Posing a question I suspect was on everyoneís mind, Zach asked, "Horace, are you saying all this as an analogy of some sort, or do you really believe it? I mean, do you really think someday Chester will meet George W. Bush in the reception room of heaven? And that Bush will apologize to him? Do you really believe thatís how heaven works?"
Horace smiled sadly. "Sometimes I believe it. But Iíll tell you something I always believe: I always believe in justice and in the power of truth to bring about justice. And thatís what we have to fight for. We have a lot of other work to do, of course. We have to fight to end the war as quickly as possible, to save as many lives as we can."
"Thatís right," said Tom. "Itís long past time for the killing to end."
"I didnít always feel that way," continued Horace. "At first, I agreed with the people who said about Iraq, we broke it, so we have to fix it. But if anythingís become clear during the nearly two years that have passed since this war started, itís that while, without a doubt, we had what it took to break Iraq, we donít have what it takes to fix it. Theyíre going to have to do that on their own. We can and should help, but not by occupying the country through force of arms. The only thing our continued presence is doing is feeding the cycle of violence. Time to face up to it boys: The neoconservative dream of remaking the world is dead. Itís time to start bringing the troops home."
"But that canít be the end of the story. We also have to make absolutely certain that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Iraq is told. Every lie, every breach of trust and every blunder . . . all of it needs to see the light of day. We owe Chester that much."
"And then, youíre saying, that will be justice?" asked Zach grimly.
"No, true justice would have been if we could have stopped the war from ever happening. If there were true justice, Chester would still be gearing up for the start of his teaching career . . . Seeing to it that the truth is told, is just the closest we can come to justice now."
* * *
Read all the "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe" episodes in the archives.
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001