Remember when the biggest problem on your side of the fence was whether the computers would work after January 1st? I do. It seems as long ago as a zit-driven anxiety attack – as long ago as the days when cyber-bully wore black and said “I’ll be back.” What the hell happened?
That’s a question almost every prisoner has cuddled up with at one time or another – usually in the concrete quiet of the night. How did I screw up this bad? How – in a country that stews its acronyms (NHL, NFL, UFC) in blood, a country that exports climate change and crushed cancer by the trainload, a country that wears dead Afghanis like merit badges – did I become the one they had to throw out of the pool? It’s a question that one con named Marc has been struggling with for at least a year – and has to explain to the Parole Board of Canada later this week. For four nights running, I’ve been helping him to find the words.
“You know, for the first two years I blamed everyone except myself.” I just nodded and listened.
“When they convicted me of attempted murder, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I wasn’t the one with the knife. I never stabbed anybody. So when the judge gave me ten years – the same as my co-accused – I was stunned. I wanted to scream. I mean, I didn’t do anything.
And that’s why I’m here. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t stop the assault. I didn’t help the victim. I didn’t call the cops. I didn’t even call an ambulance. I was like the guy in the movie, when they murdered Jesus. I just washed my hands of the whole thing. I even remember thinking: This is none of my business. I just turned the channel.”
In the past ten years there’s been many Marcs, sitting at the end of my bed, telling their story. Stories of how a kid who loved hockey became a crack head and a thief; how a guy who is such a fantastic parent could rob another child of theirs; how one who would kill to protect his own family could so coolly assault the peace of another. I used to wonder what it was that brought them – these men who didn’t really do anything. Now I think it’s because I don’t have the energy to judge them, or don’t pretend to have all the answers. I just ask the questions.
“The parole board really only wants to know two things, Marc. In some form or other they’re going to ask you to tell your story – how you got here. They want to know that you understand every step that put you behind bars. And if you even think about minimizing, justifying, or blaming your actions on anyone else – do you remember that scene in King Kong where the thing ate buddy’s head? Yeah, believe it.
The other thing they want to know is what has changed. How can they trust you won’t do this again? If you can’t answer those two questions pal… you aren’t going anywhere.”
Marc’s eyes sagged with the whole weight of his fifty birthdays. He nodded. Then he offered a hand of appreciation – which I shook – and shuffled out the door, notepad in tow. Tomorrow he sees the parole board. I wouldn’t want to be his pillow tonight.
Whenever the headlines howl with some act of human depravity, most people do exactly what we’ve been trained to. We howl along like coyotes in concert. We howl around the water cooler, we howl over a double double at Tim Horton’s, we howl in a hundred words or less to the Op-Ed page. Then we change the channel.
And why not? After all, I’m not the one that raped and killed that little girl. I’m not the one that butchered a half-hundred hookers and fed them to swine. I’m not the one that sunk his teenage daughters in the Rideau Canal. Climate change? Barbequed Afghanis? Third-world lung cancer? Wetlands holocaust? Don’t look at me.
In his 2001 book, Ordinary Men, psychologist Christopher Browning examined how tens of thousands of ordinary German Citizens played their part in the Holocaust. Using the example of one reserve police force that was responsible for the murder of forty thousand Polish Jews, he showed how even the greatest evil can become business as usual. It’s all about what you didn’t’ do.
Good citizen #1. “I didn’t round up anybody. All I did was pass on the list of Jews in my community when asked to do so.”
Good citizen #2. “I didn’t put anybody on the train. All I did was go to these addresses and arrest these people. Then I took them to the train station as I was told.”
Good citizen #3. “ I didn’t lock anybody into cattle cars. All I did was open the door and direct prisoners.”
Good citizen #4. “I didn’t drive the train to Auschwitz. All I did was close the doors on the train and make sure they were secure.”
Good citizen #5. “I didn’t direct the train. All I did was push the lever in the locomotive.”
Until recently, I had often wondered how the same group of people that brought us the printing press, the Reformation, public university, Beethoven, Goethe, and Einstein – could so casually drink the cup of genocide. I never did buy into the blame game of “It was all Hitler.” While the once German Chancellor most certainly gave the orders, an equally repulsive truth is that he also put exactly the same number of Polish Jews in cattle cars as Canada’s Prime Minister has put homeless crack heads on East Hastings: none. Instead, the heinous crime in all of human history was carried out with factory-like precision – by good people who didn’t do anything wrong. It’s breathtaking.
But at least it wasn’t me.