Ross Douthat, devout Catholic, wrote an essay about Troy Davis that ran in the Times today which is about everything but Troy Davis. It isn’t about Catholicism, either, or the meaning of American morality, two subjects Douthat holds dear and which he invokes when he considers subjects like all that dirty, nasty, hot hot sex he doesn’t want anybody else having, or why women shouldn’t have the right to have an abortion. Douthat allows his Catholicism to dictate his stance against gay marriage, when he expresses that stance at all. His general tack is to engage in a bizarre mysterianism, writing obliquely about gay marriage while rarely expressing his opposition to it. When pressed by Mother Jones, the best Douthat could offer was “‘You either intuitively believe certain things about cultural change or you don’t…. And it may just be I intuitively believe those things’—that marriage is between a man and a woman—’because they dovetail with my own theological premises about the nature of sex.'”
Well, I couldn’t begin to wade into the miasma of Douthat’s confused and confusing peek-a-boo attitude towards gay marriage. He says that he doesn’t comment on the issue often out of respect for his gay friends. I can think of a better way to respect them, but oh well. The question is what is keeping him from expressing a Catholic’s resistance to the death penalty (his theological premises about the nature of execution) in this piece. After all, the Catholic Church that Douthat so showily reveres has condemned the death penalty as a corruption and sin for Douthat’s entire life. Why would Douthat’s theological premises about gay marriage be determinative but his theological premises about execution be irrelevant? Far be it from me to define the priorities of a god I don’t believe in, but the story of Jesus’s execution is a much bigger deal in the Bible than anything about homosexuality. Take it from Pope John Paul, a man Douthat has written about very admiringly: “I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary…. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.” Pretty straightforward, and totally different from Douthat’s piece, which dances around on the head of a pin while he considers state sanctioned murder.
Douthat admiringly cites Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry and his argument that it would actually have been worse for Troy Davis to have endured life in prison than to be swiftly executed, given the horrors of American prison life. This is a novel argument, and the kind which earns you plaudits from the professional punditocracy, which prizes ideas that are counter intuitive more than those that are intelligent, righteous, well-expressed, compassionate, or humane. Unfortunately for Douthat and Gobry, there’s a rather glaring data point against this argument; Troy Davis was desperately trying to avoid the outcome that they are suggesting would be better for him. (My conservative friends tell me that we should let people decide for themselves what is best for their lives.) Perhaps one day Douthat and Gobry will find themselves in the position that Davis was in and will be able to tell us if they prefer life in prison or death. As it happens, the man is dead. To invoke what was best for him after the execution neither Douthat nor Gobry bothered to organize against strikes me as an absolutely sickening act. Don’t purport to speak for what was best for someone whose death you did nothing to avert, especially when he made his resistance to that death so profoundly public and explicit.
What strikes me, more than anything, about Douthat and Gobry’s writing is how little of Troy Davis is actually there. There’s armchair sociology. There’s argument through assumption. There’s the convenient highlighting of American opinion about the death penalty that they haven’t bothered to try and prove or locate in context. There is navel gazing and there’s posturing and there’s splitting of extremely thin hairs. There’s almost none of Troy Davis, of the person, or of the insistent, harsh reality of his preventable death. Here is the central fact of the Troy Davis case: a man who very well could have been innocent, and certainly was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, was put to death by the state of Georgia. That this is non-negotiably condemned by the Catholic Church that does so much to dictate Douthat’s morality is hardly worth mentioning. Petty hypocrisy is the blood that flows through the veins of the conservative movement. But have the guts, intellectual and moral, to actually confront the issue you are considering.
This is Troy Davis.
He was a real person. He was really alive. He was desperate to remain alive. He was strapped to a gurney and poisoned to death by the state, in an action that prevented no future crimes and healed no prior ones. I have a list of flaws longer than your arm, but let the day I write about someone’s death and treat it as an afterthought be the day I die. I won’t take broad stabs at the kind of self-aggrandizing “centrism” that is the staple of our pathetic pundit class, the kind that has earned Douthat endless plaudits from his brethren and a life of privilege and prominence: I am opposed to the death penalty, in all forms, and in all cases. I think it is a grotesque failure of the public conscience. I think a time will come when it is looked at as the ugly aberration it is. But whatever my own relationship to the deliberate taking of human life, I would hope that I would always have the courage to look the issue in the eye. Here is a man. He was alive. Now he’s dead. Innocent or guilty, attention must be paid. To deny that attention while you rationalize and justify the act is a cowardice I can hardly imagine.