Alchemy for Atheists

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“You still haven’t answered my question, Mr. GreNãda. Why do you choose to commit crime?”

The inside of my mouth tasted like I had just blow-dried it. The parole board member across the double-wide boardroom table waited for my answer, her eyes boring through me like one of those t-shaped pins they used to tack insect specimens to a cork board. I could smell my own pulse, racing.

“You see, Mr. GreNãda,” said the kindly-looking bearded fellow to her left, “what we can’t understand is why a person like you – you come from a good family, you’re educated, in good health, and don’t seem to have a substance abuse problem – why are you here… in prison? Can you answer that?”

My Dad, sitting next to me in a wheelchair, coughed nervously. He was the reason we were all here in this room. Him and Mom had been building their new house, and there had been an accident – a bad one. No one could say how long he would be in the chair, or how Mom would handle her first major construction project alone. Winter was coming.

I conjured up a few drops of saliva and did my best. “Listen, everybody makes mistakes. I’ve done my time. I only have five and a half months left until you release me anyhow. All I’m asking is that you let me go home and help my parents finish their house. I’ll be working day and night anyhow, so it’s not like I’ll be out doing crime.”

Pin eyes looked away and shook her head. “I have no more questions,” she said. After a ten-minute recess – of which eight was spent typing out the decision – they called me and Pops back in for the verdict. Parole denied. I was so sour I could have garnished a fish dish. And over the next five months, it would only get worse.

The problem was that I knew exactly why I chose to commit crime. For as long as I could remember, I hated the world around me. I hated being told what to do. I hated the way that adults – especially those in authority – condescended me. I hated the lying, pathetic, money-grubbing, hypocritical hierarchy of the school system, the religious system, the justice system and every other system I encountered. I hated its enforcers even more – the principals, the church elders, the cops, the judges, the politicians. I hated the way the world dangled a million glittering baubles in front of me, and then locked me up for daring to snatch the golden ring. If I could have, I would have blown the whole thing up and killed them all. Instead, I just set my sights on being the ultimate anti-socialite. But how do you say that to the Parole Board – and still get out of the clink?

“Committing crime… is not an exceptional activity,” says renowned Canadian lawyer Edward L. Greenspan in a compelling new article in this month’s Walrus magazine. He then makes the case for why government “policies based on the notion that ‘once a criminal, always a criminal’ reflect a fundamental misunderstanding” of this. He should know. Of the estimated 2.4 million Canadians with criminal records, Greenspan has defended his fair share. Most of them – including the always controversial Conrad Black – have gone on to demonstrate that they are no longer a threat to Canadian public safety. What gets Greenspan by the goatee is the huge collective amnesia that his fellow Canadians – and especially their current government – have developed concerning this truth.

‘For generations, Canadians have understood that legal condemnation is a necessary but terrible instrument, to be used sparingly, not wantonly,” he says. “All of this the Harper government has rejected, in a calculated attempt to change the way Canadians see each other. At some point in our lives, most of us have done things we are not proud of. (The article references the high numbers of Canadians that have admitted to tax evasion, work-related theft, or driving under the influence.) But if offenders are, as the government sees the, fundamentally bad and incapable of change, then they should be forever excluded. They are not like the rest of us. They are the enemy.”

It was an ironic experience reading my own words, written by a Queen’s Council attorney famous for his ability to see details that other sharp minds have missed. Especially since Greenspan is describing, not the rants of a 25-year-old career criminal with a glacier-sized chip on his should, but the current collective mindset of a nation. Thankfully for me, that sheet of ice draping over my heart eventually melted. By my 28th birthday, the personal war I had waged with your world was over. A year later, I submerged myself in education – a choice that brought law-abiding citizens from around the world into my intimate company – people who destroyed the old me as thoroughly as I once wanted to destroy them. In my 33rd spring I became a husband and stepfather – a privilege I still cherish as deeply as any other. The way my family tells it, the feeling is mutual. Can even the most deeply dyed leopard change his spots? We need to hope so. After all, some of them have their fingers on the button.

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