Scofield Kid: I guess they had it comin'
William Munny: We've all got it comin'
- Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven, 1992
All right. Since it's been all over the national news, I feel like I should comment. Yes, the maintenance guy at our church was arrested yesterday. Turns out he was really an escaped murderer from Massachusetts, a fugitive for the last 20 years. No, I didn't know him. I didn't even know he worked for the church.
Now that I've seen pictures of him other than the scary old mug shot in the paper, I realize that I've seen him read. Back when I had more free time in my life, I used to go hang out at poetry slams and other performance poetry events. And until yesterday, everyone who know James Porter in Chicago knew him as J.J. Jameson, poet and peace activist. He was good, if you're into that whole performance thing. Colorful.
In 1961, at the age of 21, he shot and killed a 22-year old named John Pigott. About a year later, during his first escape from jail, he and another inmate overpowered, shot and killed David Robinson, the jail master. He was quickly recaptured. He had served a total of about 26 years behind bars when he escaped again in 1985. Hard to get my head around really.
Not to excuse or minimize what he did as a young man, but it seems like a damn shame our society is so focused on meting out "justice" (meaning revenge) that we focus on punishing people rather than rehabilitating them. The fact that he lived in peace as such a contributing member of our community for 20 years indicates that Mr. Porter was eminantly rehabilitatable. (Is that a word? It is now.) I don't know what was going on in the first two decades of his life that brought him to the point of violence, but in the 45 years since then he has seemed to be a good citizen. Even before his escape, he became a model prisoner, earning a degree from Boston College, starting a magazine and publishing poetry in prison. When he finally got the opportunity to be a free adult, he used his time and talents as well as anybody else I know. You can say "He didn't deserve that opportunity, but there you go again, talking about the individual instead of society. My question, instead, would be, will it do anybody any good locking him up? I doubt it.
How does society benefit from locking him up for the rest of his life for something he did when he was 20? I'm no anarchist - I believe the police power of the state must be deployed against a broad range of criminal behaviors in order to make peaceful social life possible. I'm influenced enough by Hobbes that I've called myself a "Leviathan Liberal" before (nobody got it). But all this extreme punishment - the electric chair, life in prison - doesn't seem to recognize that people change and grow. And when we do let people out, we give them no support, and they are effectively barred from many kinds of work. In the same neighborhood as the church, one former gang kid who got out of jail came back to the neighborhood and lasted four days before he was shot dead. Four days.
The way we treat criminals is the same as the way we treat our "enemies" abroad. We use this childish paradigm of black and white hats - locating Evil in them and Good in ourselves and the communities we try to defend. Real life is not that simple. The struggle between good and evil is within people, not between them. When we start looking at people and saying, "how can we live together? Is there a place for you in our world? What can you contribute?" we'll be getting somewhere. Singling out some people as evil is missing the point. We've all got it coming, as Brother Clint says.
What "J.J. Jameson" has contributed is, principally, The Puttering Penis, which is more joy than most people give me in a lifetime. So I sort of wish he hadn't been caught.