Unbearable Mistakes

A quote attributed to North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones, who died yesterday, saddens and moves me.

“I did not do what I should have done to read and find out whether Bush was telling us the truth about Saddam being responsible for 9/11 and having weapons of mass destruction. Because I did not do my job then, I helped kill 4,000 Americans, and I will go to my grave regretting that.”

Later, he told a reporter:

“I have signed over 12,000 letters to families and extended families who’ve lost loved ones in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and that was for me asking God to forgive me for my mistake.”

Some mistakes can never be undone. Their effects can be so horrific that it is almost impossible to fathom how a person who makes them can live with himself. But people make such mistakes all the time. People commit murder in unchecked rages and, almost instantly, regret their actions. They want nothing in the world more than to undo what they have done, but it’s impossible. Regardless of their regret, though, our society demands some form of retribution. We demand extended prison time or, in many cases, a death sentence. Because, we argue, no matter how remorseful a person may be, the act of killing another human being is so horrible that only the most monstrous penalties are appropriate.

How is it that we cannot forgive a person who commits a single instance of murder yet we can forgive someone like  Congressman Jones, who admits to contributing to the deaths of thousands? Obviously, Congressman Jones did not intentionally kill those thousands, but his actions helped contribute to their deaths. How do we differentiate him from others? How do we permit ourselves to pity him and understand his regret, while maintaining our condemnation of the person who, in a blind rage, took someone’s life?

Lest it be unclear, I’m not arguing that we should offer blanket forgiveness and pity for murderers. I’m only asking myself how we justify, intellectually and emotionally, treating responsibility for the deaths of thousands differently than we treat responsibility for the deaths of individuals? How can I feel sympathy and empathy for Congressman Jones’ sense of regret and remorse, while allowing myself to feel no such emotional bond with the woman who, in a fit of rage, shot her unfaithful husband? Or have I simply conditioned myself to abandon my empathy and sympathy for the murderous woman because society has told me it’s the right thing to do?

I think the fact that people express deep remorse for their unforgivable acts is one of the reasons I long ago decided that I’m not only not in favor of, but actively oppose, the death penalty. That, coupled with the very real possibility of unjust convictions of innocent people, changed my mind. I still feel rage and anger and a desire for revenge against people who commit heinous crimes, but I temper those wishes with the knowledge that questions of guilt or innocence and real regret always are at play. My compassion for those judged guilty doesn’t compare to my sense of compassion for victims and their families, but it is sufficient to make me err on the sides of uncertainty and remorse.

Though I know very little about Congressman Jones (other than the fact that he switched parties from Democrat to Republican , that he regretted his votes in favor of the Iraq invasion, and that he was among those in Congress who pushed to rename french fries to “freedom fries” after the French opposed the 2003 U.S. action against Iraq), I feel empathy for the man. I hope he was able to finally believe, before he died, that he was forgiven.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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