Elegy for a false prophet

Attention conservation notice: I am grieving for everybody, including people whom I don’t know and who did terrible things.

As some of you may know, we’ve had a number of hard losses this summer, including my mother-in-law. I’ve also been rottenly sick with bronchitis. I felt bad for about a week, but I am having trouble shaking this dratted cough. I am not a particularly social person anyway, and when I do go out to see people I prefer not to sound like Mimi during the last act of La Boheme. The coughing is so bad that I’ve strained back and stomach muscles, which might be because I normally tend to use those only in emergencies, like trying to save a donut I’ve dropped before it hits the ground.

This is by way of saying I’m not doing any damn work, and I’m emotionally in a weird spot, and these things may explain why I found myself sad on Friday when I encountered the following headline:

Aum Shinrikyo cult leaders executed.

The cult’s deadliest attack occurred in March 25, when members of the cult left bags of sarin on the Tokyo subway. They killed 13 people and injured hundreds of others, including blindness and paralysis. In subsequent months, other members tried to release hydrogen cyanide multiple times on trains, but they were caught before they could do so.

It’s hard to overstate the viciousness of the act: sarin or cyanide are terrible, painful toxins, which is one reason why the evidence that Assad has used sarin is so troubling. The human misery the cultists caused with these toxins is incalculable.

Which, for many, means they easily the meet the bar for the death penalty. I can’t go there, and the news of the execution on Friday has put me into a inexplicable funk that I still have. Why the hell would you grieve people who did such terrible things? It doesn’t help that proponents of the death penalty often treat any grief you feel for the executed as indifference felt for the victim. I can, however, feel grief for both at the same time. It’s too easy a rhetorical device, however, for people to lay off it, so that those of us who do not support the death penalty have to deal with people framing us as, somehow, pro-John Wayne Gary, instead of what we are: unwilling to have the state going around killing people.

I think what sticks here is the evangelical impulse behind the actions. The cult itself focussed on the apocalyptic material from Christianity. They convinced themselves the end of the world was coming and that anybody alive, who wasn’t in the cult, when armageddon came would go to hell. They thought, by killing, they would save people from eternal damnation. The cult has, according to online reports, an international following with tens of thousands of followers. It’s like mini-Inquisition, modernized.

They didn’t kill for profit or self-interest. They killed for fucked up reasons of their own. I know “they meant well” is hardly exculpatory, but still. How did they get to that point?

In 1995, I was in my master’s program. There was Waco. For some reason, this particular event has lodged in my mind, stayed with me, and tempered how I thought about transit security. My fellow planners assured me that cities were safe ‘because of eyes on the street.’ Sarin destroys eyes, and for people thinking along these lines, the more eyes the better.

Back then, I truly wanted to understand what motivated other people to the do the things they do, how they can get to a point where they genuinely believe that they must kill. I still do wish I knew.

But age has taught me that there is very little chance I’m going to understand others to my satisfaction. Every one of us is, to some degree, a mystery. Perhaps psychologists understand it and I just haven’t read the right things.

Japan apparently does not give any prior notice on executions, but they let the media know when it is done. Those on death row usually only know a few hours ahead of time when the time has been set.

Is that better or worse than knowing months ahead of time? I can’t imagine.

This last Friday, they executed seven members of the cult, including the leader, Shoko Asahara, by hanging. Is that better or worse than any of the methods we use in the US? Again, I don’t know. It’s such a terrible specter, the image of human beings hanging.