Thursday, April 19, 2007

Survivors (an essay in four parts)


This morning, I watched an online video interview with one of the hospitalized victims of the Virginia Tech shootings. This young man was a student in the German class where Cho killed Jamie Bishop and so many other people. This student spoke very eloquently about how glad he is to be alive and how grateful he is to the three other students who held the classroom door closed, once Cho had left the room, so that Cho couldn't get back in and finish off what he had started.

And then the student talked about Cho. "I just wish I'd known him before all this happened. I wish I'd had a chance to reach out to him."

The reporter interrupted, putting a hand on the student's leg. "You know how crazy that sounds, don't you?"

And the student said that maybe it did sound crazy, but that was how he felt. He said he's forgiven Cho, and that forgiveness is the beginning of healing.

I had mixed reactions to this: first, that it's easier to forgive someone who's already dead, and secondly, that forgiveness can't be rushed (and for some people, may never be possible). But my first and strongest reaction, when the reporter interrupted the student, was that no, the student's statement didn't sound crazy at all. A lot of people did try to reach out to Cho, as it turns out. Tragically, those efforts didn't work. But the futility of the attempts doesn't make the student's wistful regret any less powerful or poignant.

This wounded student was voicing his faith that loving people is the right thing to do, and that love can help heal people who are even more badly wounded, people consumed by hatred and despair. That doesn't sound one bit crazy to me. The reporter's judgment, though, is a logical response in a society that too often seems to consider compassion a limited resource, one to be rationed far more carefully than we ration water or wood or fossil fuels.

Very often, when I've expressed compassion for criminals, people have glared at me and said, "Don't you think you should feel compassion for their victims instead?" And my response has always been that of course I feel compassion for the victims; I try to feel compassion for everybody, although I certainly don't always live up to that lofty goal. This isn't an either/or situation, where one can only feel compassion for the victim or the perpetrator. It's both/and: one can feel compassion for both sides of the conflict, both for the people who've done the hurting and for the people who've been hurt.

I should probably define my terms here. Feeling compassion for someone doesn't mean that I approve of that person's behavior, or that I feel the person shouldn't have to atone for wrongdoing. It simply means that I sorrow for whatever conditions led that person to that behavior; that I hope for growth and love and redemption to be possible; that I resolutely try to keep sight of the human being even when that human has behaved inhumanely. It means that I wish that I, or someone, had been able to reach out to this person before the behavior occurred.

For me, compassion is much easier than forgiveness. I can feel compassion for people at whom I'm still angry, people I haven't forgiven yet. I'm able to feel deeply hurt by people, even furious at them, and still feel sorrow and regret for them. I'm entirely too good at nursing anger -- it's definitely one of my besetting sins -- but I've never consciously tried to hurt the people who've made me angry (although I'm sure I've caused them pain anyway). I don't want them to suffer. I just want them to get their acts together.

All of that probably sounds crazy too, but there you have it. I'm vast: I contain multitudes.


My hope in the possibility of growth and love and redemption is why, even when I believe someone should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, I don't believe in the death penalty. I used to be in favor of the death penalty, and then I was torn about it for a really long time, and then I stopped being torn about it and decided that I was against it. The catalyst for that decision was probably hearing, on NPR's All Things Considered, the radio documentary Witness to an Execution, "examining the effects that executing inmates has on the men and women of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. . . . the documentary is narrated by Warden Jim Willett, overseer of all Texas executions, and is told through the voices of the men and women who have participated in or witnessed as many as 162 executions."

These voices tell us that even when prison employees approve of the death penalty, even when they believe they're doing the right thing, the work of taking human lives takes a terrible toll on them. As I've said in an earlier post, I think we need to be very mindful of what we're asking when we ask others to kill for us.

But the line that most moved me in the NPR program came from a journalist who said quietly, "You've never heard a sound like the sound a mother makes when her son is being executed."

I've heard many survivors of murder victims say that they wanted to attend the murderer's execution, that this brought them closure, that it made them feel better. If they say it makes them feel better, I have to believe them. But after hearing the NPR program, I wondered: did any of them think about how the murderer's family felt? Did they hear the sound the mother made when her son was executed? How did that make them feel?

Of course, some murderers' families have written the murderers off in rage and hatred, just as the victims' families have. And some victims' families have taken the stand in court to ask the judge and jury not to use the death penalty, because the murderer's death won't bring their loved ones back or make them feel better.

I have friends who carry wallet cards stating that if they die in the course of a violent crime, they don't want the people responsible for their death to be put to death themselves. I'd have a card like that myself, if I were more organized about all kinds of end-of-life matters. (Gary and I don't have wills or advance directives, either. Hold the lectures, please. Yes, I know we need to do this. Nagging won't help, okay?)

I heard the NPR documentary in October, 2000, when it first aired, and it helped make up my mind about a notoriously difficult issue. But my convictions about the death penalty, while deeply held, were abstract and academic, worlds away from any real experience.


And then the debate came home with a crash. A few years ago, the deeply disturbed grown son of a close family friend committed a grisly, premeditated murder.

To protect the privacy of everyone concerned, I'm not going to provide any identifying details. But when my sister called me to tell me about the murder, we both instantly knew who'd done it. When I called my father, who's particularly close to the murderer's mother, he knew her son had done it. At that point, the police had the murderer in custody but weren't releasing his name, but we knew we'd recognize the name when it came out. And we did. We've never had any illusions about this man's innocence.

I haven't met our friend's son, and I can't say that I want to. The stories she's told us about him have convinced us that he's a pretty awful human being; he's physically threatened or hurt her on more than one occasion, although she's done nothing but help him. Like Cho Seung-Hui, he's a very intelligent person, especially good at math; also like Cho Seung-Hui, he's clearly mentally ill. We're now learning that Cho Seung-Hui endured terrible bullying as a child; I don't know if our friend's son did or not. Of course, many people endure terrible bullying without becoming murderers -- I was terribly bullied myself when I was a kid, and I've never killed anybody -- but in some cases, it does seem to be one causative factor.

No one in my family felt sorry for our friend's son. We were furious at him, and we all felt absolutely sick for the victim and the victim's family. But we also felt absolutely sick for our friend, the murderer's mother, who went through agonies of shame and self-reproach after the crime, and who's now moved hundreds of miles away from where she had been living, so she can be close to her son's prison and visit him there. He's still awaiting trial. She wonders whether she'll attend; she's been warned that it will be hard to take, that a very ugly picture of her son will emerge. She doesn't know if she'll be able to stand that.

She regularly talks to my father, who's an attorney. My father regularly talks to me. We both know that in this particular jurisdiction, this will be considered a capital crime. The prosecution will undoubtedly ask for the death penalty, and they'll probably get it. We think that if our friend's son were really smart, he'd admit his guilt to try to get life without parole instead of the death penalty. He keeps saying he's innocent. We all know he isn't innocent. And while we also all know that he's mentally ill, we wouldn't expect anyone to buy an insanity defense. We wouldn't buy it ourselves. This crime, like Cho Seung-Hui's, was too premeditated, too vicious, too carefully planned.

And yet, almost despite myself, I keep stubbornly hoping for the possibility of growth and love and redemption. "Everybody says he's really good at math," I told my father once. "He could tutor other prisoners. You know, prison education programs keep getting cut, and illiteracy and innumeracy are a huge problem for those guys. That's what keeps a lot of them from being able to get legal jobs. Even if he never gets out himself, he could help other people have a better chance when they got out."

My father's always been against the death penalty. It didn't take an NPR documentary to convince him. But he's also a realist. "It would be great if he could do that, if he could ever work well enough with anybody. But he's already been in solitary just because of stuff that's happened before the trial."

We both think our friend's son will get the death penalty. We wonder how our friend will survive this. She's furious at him too, and she hates what he's done, but she still loves him. She remembers carrying him inside her body before he was born, remembers feeding him when he was a baby, remembers funny things he did when he was a little boy. In the middle of the horror his life has become, the horror he's made of other people's lives, she clings to what's good about him.

I can't believe that's wrong. And I don't want to imagine the sound she'll make when she sees him being executed.

Ever since the Virginia Tech massacre, I've been thinking about her, and thinking about Cho Seung-Hui's parents and sister. By everyone's account, his parents are good people who worked very hard to give their two children the chance to succeed in a new country. His sister, Cho Sun-Kyung, graduated from Princeton, my alma mater. She spent three months as a State Department intern in Thailand because she wanted to observe labor conditions in a developing country, and gave a short interview about her experience to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin. It's hard to believe that the articulate, engaged young woman who made these comments is related to the Virginia Tech killer. I can't imagine what she and her parents are going through now.

If Cho Seung-Hui hadn't killed himself after killing all those other people, I'd definitely want him to spend the rest of his life in prison. But I wouldn't want him to be on death row. I wouldn't want to put his parents and sister through that torment; I wouldn't want to think about the sounds they'd make when they watched him being executed. I'd want to believe that love and growth and redemption would somehow be possible for him, even if only in the form of offering math tutoring to other prisoners.


No growth or redemption are possible for Cho Seung-Hui now, because he's dead. I'm sure many people are very happy about that, or at least bitterly satisfied; if he weren't dead, I'm sure that many people would want him to be. How can we blame them?

But I keep thinking about his parents and sister, and about our family friend. Last night I found myself wishing that I could put them all in a room together, so they could talk to each other. And that got me wondering if there are any support groups for the families of murderers, alongside the very necessary and important ones for the families of murder victims.

And that, in turn, led me to a Google search. And my Google search led me to Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, a coalition of families who oppose the death penalty even though their own loved ones have been murdered -- or because their loved ones have been murdered, and they know the pain of that loss.

MVFHR's home page quotes Bud Welch, father of Julie Marie Welch, victim in the Oklahoma City bombing: "The death penalty is about revenge and hate, and revenge and hate is why my daughter and those 167 other people are dead today."

Here's part of MVFHR's mission statement:
By definition, human rights cannot be either granted or denied by a government. By framing the death penalty as a human rights issue rather than a criminal justice issue, we are saying that whatever form of government a nation has, whatever the assumptions or policies of its criminal justice system, it should not be allowed to take the lives of its own citizens. Thinking of the death penalty this way takes it out of the realm of specific criminal justice systems and places it in the realm of international human rights standards, which transcend national borders and are based in our common humanity across the globe.

MVFHR believes that the anti-death penalty movement in the United States can draw strength from this international human rights framework and from solidarity and partnership with those who are working against the death penalty in other countries ­­-- and not just in countries that no longer have the death penalty, but also in countries that still retain it. In viewing the issue this way, we are building upon the work of human rights, anti-death penalty, and victims’ activists in this country and around the world.

We believe that survivors of homicide victims have a recognized stake in the debate over how societies respond to murder and have the moral authority to call for a consistent human rights ethic as part of that response.
MVFHR has produced a report called "Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind." They note in particular the impact of executions on the children of those being put to death by the state.

I have a feeling that MVFHR members would completely understand the student survivor who wished he'd had the chance to reach out to Cho Seung-Hui. I don't think they'd think that was crazy at all. And knowing that there's such an organization in the world makes it easier for me to have faith that I'm not crazy, either. There are other people who stubbornly hope for the possibility of growth and love and redemption, even for those who've hurt them most deeply.

I pray that Cho Seung-Hui's family will find the love and support they need. I keep thinking about the bereaved survivors of the Amish schoolhouse shooting, who reached out to the family of the shooter. Is anyone doing that for the Chos?


  1. Thank you. You put my feelings into words.

  2. Anonymous10:47 PM

    AMEN, Susan..thank you.

    love, Cheri

  3. Beautifully expressed. Thank you, Susan. Where there is life, there is possibility.

  4. It is hard, isn't it?

    Actually, it doesn't matter whether the gracious survivor is "crazy" or not. Some appropriate craziness has often been how we discovered God acting in the world, and so were able to follow.


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