Out of the horror, grace

 

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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 17 Jul 99


“Humanity must perforce prey upon itself, like monsters of the deep.”

William Shakespeare

 

The gates of Hell opened and we all collectively had a glimpse of what’s within. What did we see? A house of Purgatory and Hell in the middle of the city surrounded by tall walls heavily guarded by soldiers with long guns. The State Prison.

 

Wretched, desperate, stupid or brutish men in striped pyjamas inhabit it. They are crammed together in cells if their crimes were rape, robbery, fraud, larceny, wounding. They smell one another’s faeces, breathe in one another’s stench, witness a private sorrow. There is no privacy here, no dignity.

 

The politics of the underworld is intricate. Add to that the politics of any group of humans joined by a common thread and you get the gamut of human relationships and desires. Even under surveillance, behind bars, groups form, bullies emerge, power struggles take place, fights break out, rumours fly, unexpected friendships form and betrayal is still a shock. There is occasional laughter, sacred texts which give comfort.

 

Even here in these men you can see an aching love in the form of dirty thumb prints on the much-fondled photograph of a child or a woman, or a letter read and reread. They may have committed vile crimes. They may be justifiably dehumanised with numbers and uniforms, but they remain human.

 

Walk past the doors of Purgatory into Hell from which there is no return: a death row of cells twice the size of a grave brightly lit and guarded with armed officers around the clock.

 

By Thursday evening the word gets around. No reprieve. Death warrants have been read with all the pomp of an ancient justice: “greetings from the president etc”. The boss will be hanged. The other eight men watch a large chunk of their tiny portions of hope fall to the ground and melt like ice. Death advances. Fifty other men see the image of the noose in front of them. They hear the trap door, see themselves falling down, lifeless, watch their bodies being lowered into a rough grave. They see their own lifeless bodies, strung out like chickens. This is a recurring nightmare in Hell.

 

Each condemned man sits alone. In the middle of terror, grace. A single voice rings out the opening words to a hymn... Amazing Grace, joined by another and another, cell to cell contact, creating an invisible link. And after that another hymn, another, another, higher and higher until their voices are hoarse, until the dawn creeps up, the bells in the cathedral toll and a hopeless silence descends in Hell.

 

The nearly dead participate in their own wake. Almost by the hour, the first three are led to the cell. The hymns are an acknowledgement that no matter how heinous their crimes, every one of them has in them a vestige of humanity. The rest is history. Dole Chadee led his gang of eight to their final mission to walk to their death with dignity. What did each one think of in that short walk? How did they feel when the hood came on, the trap door opened, and in that minute while life was being squeezed out of him?

 

The Prisons Commissioner walks slowly to the media and discharges his duty. He announces each hanging, and says they all went “quietly”. He is correct and restrained but he can’t mask the horror. We see the macabre scenes in the death chamber in his eyes. He doesn’t have to say more. Human slaughter. No different if its done in a bedroom or a “chamber”. Slaughter is slaughter. Somewhere along the line the questions changed from “why are these attorneys trying to save these murderers’ lives?” to “why did they do it?” and “why did any of the slaughter of the families and the hangings have to happen at all?” A city and country mourns without knowing why. The men were murderers but there are parts of them, good and bad, with which we all identify.

 

Chadee loved his children, and religion, and still lived by some code. (Ramkalawan Singh’s mother recalls him trying to save her son, “Ma, I don’t know your son”). Joey Ramiah was once a thin nondescript boy with no self-esteem till he killed one man and, after that, crowds parted for him. Maybe someone should have given him another way to feel like a man. And Ramkalawan Singh could be the boy next door. A nice looking young man who got caught up in the glamour of a cell phone and a bit of cash.  Don’t we all want money, cell phones, glamour, power? Aren’t we all greedy, materialistic? Look at our faces in the malls, looking at this watch, that pair of shoes, that diamond. Won’t we all be enraged if someone threatened to kidnap our children, or owed us money?

 

There is a thin line separating life from death, and the risen from the fallen. Any of us could cross it any day. Some of us are lucky enough to stay on this side of the line. But it’s thin all right. It works both ways. Work your way up to the house in St Clair, from poverty; work your way down to the Beetham. It’s as easy as losing your job, losing your house and you’re on the hustle. If you’re young and poor and your boss is driving a car with which you could buy two houses while you live in a shack, if your father, teacher doesn’t give two pins about you, won’t you jump at easy money, easy respect? Two hundred dollars to kill a man will do. That’s just one scenario. Every brutality has its history.

 

What we’ve learned is that man is not only brute, or we’d better believe it if we want to carry on. A family member of a woman whose throat was slit writes to me: “If you came home one day and found your maid on the floor with her throat slit and your two children strangled and raped, and the men responsible were found guilty and sentenced to hang, would you still think it barbaric for them to hang? I support the death penalty - if they want to use lethal injection that’s fine. If the method continues to be hanging, that’s fine too. Even though I do feel sorry for them, I feel sorrier for the people I knew and hanging is a walk in the park compared to what they went through.”

 

Oh yes, there is another side to the story. We were not spared the decapitated head, the horror of murder, a roof leaking blood, the shattering of an ordinary sleepy afternoon in a residential neighbourhood by a handyman. We were forced to look at the corpses of dead witnesses. We were shown how cheap life can be. Some called it a state of siege, some said it was terror. Savagery. The world dismissed us as the Wild West. We smouldered, and raged and longed for them to hang.

 

We turned on one another. At some point we stopped believing in one another’s humanity and closed into our small circles, barred the door from outsiders. But with the hangings came sadness as we recognised that we all have brute and grace in us. That if we return blow for blow, we’d all be bruised, if not hanged.

 

Out of the ropes and hoods and trapdoors, out of the brutal murders and corpses rose grace. Nobody was crowing, or smacking their lips. It was viewed as it was. A collective failure. A space opened inside the abolitionists and the majority of those who support capital punishment, a space that recognises that we are all responsible. The next time you hear anyone say “someone should really do something about crime”, remember this thing happened to all of us. Ask them, ask yourself, ask myself: do you pay your maid (the one with sons to feed and bring up) a decent wage, give her time off? Do you know where your son is tonight and with whom?

 

Does the Government see the connection between crime and the boys without education or money in Laventille, Beetham, Caroni? Do you as an employee humiliate a worker because he is poor and uneducated or flaunt your wealth? Are you, am I, all of us giving enough to the homes of abandoned and orphaned boys who will one day be men?

 

After it happened, we found an echo in one another. Whether we agreed with capital punishment or not we all sat here licking our wounds. When we raised our heads we looked at one another as if to say we are alike after all. In the end we saw something of ourselves in them, and took some responsibility for the brutality around us. And as the hymns were grace to the condemned men, this recognition of one another’s humanity and responsibility for the slaughter is ours.

 

Out of the horror, there was grace.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur