The Application of Mercy

In Humbolt Park, Chicago, last night a couple was dragged from their car and shot. The man is dead and the woman is injured. It is entirely irrelevant why this particular event happened. The punishment of the criminals, if it happens, will also be entirely pointless because they won’t be punished properly.

I got into a good natured argument yesterday and today on Twitter about the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. I took the position that the main American mistake – our mistake of all mistakes – was that we allowed the Confederate leadership to live after the war. Not only allowed them to live, but allowed them to prosper and resume their power in the South. This is why we got Jim Crow. It wasn’t imposed by poor white farmers, but by the Ruling Class. The Ex-Confederates that we let off formed the KKK and used the most horrific violence imaginable against black Southerners as well as any white Southerners who wanted to take a stab at living in peace and justice with the freed slaves. And make no mistake about it, there were plenty of white Southerners who were willing to live in peace – I’m not saying they were ready, in 1865, to intermarry (though some did, in spite of huge pressure against it), but they were willing to live and let live. That was all very deliberately and maliciously suppressed by the Klan, under the control of people who had been Confederate generals, governors and other officials.

We have had the sense that Grant’s policy of letting them up easy was the correct way to go and in a certain sense, this can’t be argued against. As the historian Will Durant pointed out, the greatest military captains of history have shown that clemency is a mighty engine of war. But when we think about some of those past captains, we see it wasn’t exactly like it was after our Civil War.

Caesar was famously magnanimous with the defeated Gauls. He treated the defeated so well that during the ensuing Roman Civil War the Gauls didn’t rise in revolt when they could have easily thrown off Roman rule. Its not like the Gauls didn’t have people who could fight. They did: Caesar had let quite a lot of them off to return to their homes. But they didn’t rise. Why not? Probably had something to do with Caesar having their main leader strangled in Rome after his defeat. In other words, Caesar was merciful, but he wasn’t stupid enough to leave a strong, intelligent and clearly brave enemy alive.

Another example of this sort of thing was what the Austrians under Prince Schwarzenberg did to the Hungarians after their revolt was crushed in the 1840’s. Once the Hungarians were down, the operatives of the Austrian Monarchy went to work hunting down the leaders of the Hungarian revolt and hanging them in large numbers. The Prince was urged to mercy by a friend who, like many in Austria and around the world, was horrified at the operation of vengeance. Schwarzenberg said that he quite agreed that mercy was necessary – but, first, they had to have some hangings. Did this make him a hypocrite? Not at all. Cruel? Nope. He was merely being wise and ultimately merciful. Another observer of the same events, the still young Bismarck still more than a decade away from fame, responded to a friend complaining about the repression in Hungary by asking why no tears were shed for all the people who had been made widows and orphans by the rebels? People were acting as if the rebels must certainly have been in the right and that their actions were immaculate. This, to Bismarck (and to any fair observer) was drivel. The Hungarians had their complaints about the Austrian Monarchy, but so did everyone – but the Hungarians had no particular justification for going into revolt…especially as for each Austrian act of repression against Hungarians, there had been Hungarian acts of repression against non-Magyars in Hungary. Very rare will there be the person who is totally in the right!

Now, how did this work out? Well, once the hangman’s noose was put away (and it was, fairly quickly), order and justice were restored and some years after it was all over, Gyula Andrássy – a Hungarian rebel who had been condemned to death in absentia and actually hung in effigy – was appointed Prime Minister of Hungary and Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Funny how things can work out? But it likely would not have worked out had the Austrians simply allowed the rebels to resume their position in the Hungarian Ruling Class as if nothing had happened. What we did in 1865 was allow the defeated enemy to resume his position. This got us a century of Jim Crow and, ultimately, played a huge role in the subordination of State governments to the Feds. Think about it – a modicum of justice in the South and there never would have been a Plessy vs Ferguson leading to a Brown vs Board of Education. No consent decrees. No gerrymandering minority-majority house districts. No “one man, one vote” destruction of the State Senates, which was a body blow to the very concept of Republican government. A few more hangings and we wouldn’t have had Jefferson Davis spinning his Lost Cause drivel while Forrest created the KKK to be a mafia-like muscle to re-impose Confederate rule in the South (and, yes, I realize that Forrest seems to have had a change of heart years later, but by then the damage was done – he’d have been far more useful to peace and justice dying at the end of a rope in 1865 than dying with lots of black friends in 1877).

Mercy must always triumph over Justice. But Justice must have her due. It can’t be otherwise. To get back to the start of this piece, the reason savages dragged two people out of a car and shot them is because we developed an entirely mistaken idea of what mercy is. We have it in our minds that Mercy means you skate. It can’t. If you do wrong, you must pay. A price is demanded for everything. Even God’s mercy had a price, after all. What will be done wrong about the people in Chicago is that they won’t be forced to the real atonement necessary. Even if they spend some time in jail, it still can’t possibly balance the books. For goodness sake, they dragged people out of their car and shot them! How is 20 years in jail going to make up for that? How will that deter the next barbarian? But before you go “death penalty” I’ll also ask: what will killing the shooters accomplish? To their fellow barbarians, they are still heroes who showed The Man. Dying from lethal injection won’t balance the books.

No, there has to be more – it isn’t enough to jail or kill: the perpetrators must be revealed for what they are: very stupid barbarians who will find out that Civilization can be one real son of a bitch when necessary. The reason our civilization used to hang, draw and quarter people wasn’t to be cruel. No, it had a very specific purpose: it was to show everyone, especially the barbarians, that Civilization wasn’t to be trifled with. That if you’ll live in peace with your neighbors, you’ll be fine: but if you won’t, then you’ll be made to curse your mother for giving you birth.

And it works, guys. The reason that we used to live in a world where even in big cities we didn’t have to lock our doors at night is because for centuries before, the most harsh punishments had been meted out to those who broke the rules. In the long run, it was a mercy to do it – because it eventually deterred people from being savages. Yes, provide mercy – and I mean in the sense of letting someone eventually off. But first, to put it bluntly, there must be a little hanging. We don’t have to do it to everyone who drags a person out of their car – just a few. The rest will get the message. And then we’ll have the crowning mercy of nobody being dragged from their cars and shot requiring us then to brutally punish the perpetrators. Because that is what you’re doing – you’re not trying to be cruel: you’re trying to get to a point where you don’t have to punish very much because there’s hardly anyone to punish. That is real Mercy.