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Violence and the utility of grief

Lisa Taylor | Sunday, September 22, 2013

Two summers ago, I travelled to Pennsylvania for a Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP) with the Refugee Resettlement Program of Catholic Charities. There was no such thing as a typical day on this job, but I usually ran errands with refugees, such as obtaining social security cards, getting tuberculosis tests, writing resumes, testing for ESL classes or moving furniture. One unusual day of this summer stands out vividly in my memory. I found myself in a courtroom, listening to a preliminary trial hearing for a man accused of murdering a refugee. 

After fleeing his home in Eritrea, Hagos Mezgebo spent 13 months in the United States adjusting to a new culture and lifestyle. One late night, he separated from his friends outside a bar to stop at an ATM. While he was outside, a stranger abruptly drove up and shot him. The first shot was point black, hitting Hagos directly in the face from approximately 18 inches away. It killed him immediately, but his body still reflexively turned to run as his attacker shot him four more times, emptying 12 total rounds in the streets of Allentown, Pa. 

During the hearing, I listened to the prosecutor’s timeline of that night – how the alleged murderer beat his girlfriend, got kicked out of a club, shot Hagos and threatened another girl with a gun. I watched the defendant scowl and sink down into his chair as a police officer gave testimony, describing the trail of blood that seeped down the street as Hagos bled to death. The prosecutor asked question after logistical question, and my ears began ringing and the world swirled around me. The stiff, antiseptic stillness of the courtroom jarred with the violent chaotic images in my mind: Blood flowing in a dark street, shots echoing, people running and tangible fear. 

When I originally reflected on the hearing, the usual unanswerable questions overwhelmed me: How can we inhabit a world that produces such unexpected violence? How does evil seep into our lives, corrupting, corroding and destroying? Where does the pursuit of justice begin?
In that particular case, the prosecutor pressed for the death penalty. At the time, even simply as a bystander in the court, I was beaten back by ambivalence and confusion. I looked upon the alleged murderer, goose bumps raised on my arms, and tried to imagine his life and his possible death. Our lives and identities are undoubtedly produced by a composition of our deeds and our choices, but could I reduce this man to the label of murderer? No, I couldn’t. But he pled guilty, accepted the label and received 40-80 years in prison.

Two years after this preliminary trial, I cannot help but think back and retrospectively integrate my knowledge of our broken legal and criminal justice system. Today, 2.3 million people are incarcerated in our prison system (Gottschalk 2008), a number that has skyrocketed in recent decades. The racist and classist bent of the legal system has resulted in disproportionate numbers of minorities (especially African Americans) and the poor in prison. Sister Helen Prejean, in “The Death of Innocents,” rails against the uneven and unjust application of the death penalty, describing how every single person on death row is poor. Poverty precludes affording a quality lawyer, thus impeding due process. Moreover, most prisoners live in inhumane situations, subjected to physical and sexual violence, deprived of meaningful interaction and robbed of opportunities for education and true rehabilitation.

In light of these facts, the perpetrator-victim line steadily begins to blur and fade as we recognize and evaluate the effects of societal structural violence. Prisons are fundamentally about retribution and the infliction of pain, not rehabilitation. Yet still we are left with the sticking point – what do we do with the guilty, with the violent? What do we do with people like the man who murdered Hagos?

I suggest we step back momentarily and consider the situation from a standpoint of tragedy, asking two fundamental questions: Who do we grieve and who deserves to be grieved? The brilliant scholar Judith Butler asks about the utility of grief: “Is there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence?” She argues that, contrary to what many fear, grieving does not leave us powerless. Rather, it returns us to “a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another.”

Can we grieve for both perpetrators and victims, recognizing that both are victims of violence? Can we value the life of the guilty and the violent? And can grief truly return us to a sense of common human vulnerability and ultimately, human community? Although perhaps unanswerable, such questions must be examined in order to implement justice, respect human dignity and fight for human rights.

Lisa Taylor is a senior studying
political science. She can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.