Timothy McVeigh's execution this Monday brought back to memory a conversation with an old family friend we hosted a few months back. Our guest was one of the lucky ones that ultimately escaped the Cultural Revolution - but had many relatives who weren't as fortunate and suffered its horrors.
Among them: "Counterrevolutionaries" were dragged out into public stockyards where they are given deliberately grotesque "haircuts," locked into braces with a large painted placard announcing their "crimes" and set up for abuse. Students were told to spit and urinate on their teachers' heads, and farmers would strip landowners to inflict unmentionable sexual abuse. The objective psychological torture - designed to completely humiliate someone before they are sent off to prison or execution.
Our friend was in one of those villages with his younger brother (then 13 years old) when the People's Liberation Army swept through town. The god of good fortune did not smile upon the younger brother, and the boy was among those who were set for this treatment. After hours of abuse, the solider that removed the scaffold decided the 13-year-old hadn't had quite enough, and proceeded to beat him with the butt of his rifle to a bloody pulp. The two brothers ultimately slipped out with some resourceful older escapees to Taiwan and then finally immigrated to the U.S.
There are secrets we bury deep in the dark places of our hearts that may lay undisturbed for a lifetime save extraordinary circumstance. And from the time he escaped to Taiwan to his years in the U.S., he never spoke a word of his experiences to anyone. After all, there's no sense in needlessly disturbing old ghosts and chance facing the torrent of horrors best left buried in the charred remains of his childhood village. But though we may never speak of these things, we never forget either.
Which brought us to some time in November 2000, when he was attending the wedding of a friend's cousin. As the crowds mingled and chatted in the reception hall he did a double-take at one of the guests. Could it be? He was about the right age, and had the same features. Too, burned into his memory was the soldier's name from the badge he read off the uniform. What are the chances? He had to find out.
"Hey hey!" (said in Chinese) he approached the seventy-odd year old man with a friendly smile. "Are you a friend of the groom or the bride?"
"Bride side. She's the niece of my stepbrother. You?"
"Friend's cousin is the groom."
"Ahhh. Nice! Good to see so many people here!"
"Hey listen - are you from the mainland?"
"Yeah, came here about fifteen years ago."
"And you lived just south of Beijing in 1963, yes?"
"Sure … how did you … ?"
"And you served in the People's Liberation Army during that time, correct?"
The man's face went pale.
"… I … I … "
"Your name is Wong Hwa-Ting, and held the rank of Corporal in Spring of 1963, isn't that right?"
"Yes - Oh God. You're … you're …"
"Recognize me now?"
(continued from main journal)
"Son of a BITCH!" (its equivalent in Chinese, anyway) He grabbed the man by the hair with one hand and his necktie with the other and began to drag him toward the exit. "We'll take this outside and settle your debts once and for all." - marching right through the middle of the wedding reception.
For a few seconds, the guests were too shocked to do anything before some of the male attendees took hold of him and separated him from his target. He made one wild swing at the man but failed to connect before being pulled out of range.
In the days that followed, restraining orders were issued, and the former prisoner was forbidden to be near any events that had a member of the brides' family. To this day, the former PLA soldier who beat the 13-year-old boy walks the streets of the United States a free man.
Daydreams, Bloody Daydreams
In the course of the few days after I heard his story, I turned over the man's story in my mind. How was I supposed to feel when I heard that? Satisfaction that the villain was finally fingered? Sadness than an old man was assaulted for the sins of his youth committed almost half a century ago? Or something else altogether?
Oh, I understand the psychology of vengeance. In my gut, I was cheering him on every second of the account and thought: "What a shame he failed to connect a hit before being separated. Just one solid hit POW and shatter this guy's nose. It wouldn't have settled the score, but it would be a sweet down payment."
It's disquieting how pleasant these thoughts are. But every time I hear another story of the Cultural Revolution, every time I listen to a Mao-worshipping former-hippie college professor heap praise on China as the example of the triumphs of socialist revolution - I feel my gut make a familiar stir.
I wanted to tear from top to bottom the giant poster of Mao in Beijing and torch it in Tienanmen Square. I wanted to line up every commanding officer who served in the People's Liberation Army since 1958, find their issued rifle and smash their skulls with them. I wanted burn down every home of Party leaders who ordered death and torture from the comfort of their houses. I wanted to rain down fire and breathe out smoke. I wanted to -
I wanted to -
And then I went cold with realization.
I was sounding exactly like the kind of monsters I hated.
The Price of Vengeance
My red-misted vision cleared and I took a deep breath. What if I had the military and political power to actually carry out my bloody fantasies? What then? If I could get away with it, would I actually pull the trigger? Would their children then swear vengeance against mine? Would then my surviving progeny seek to even the score in the name of their fallen brothers and sisters?
I let out a long shuddering sigh.
This is the stuff of blood feuds isn't it? Arab vs. Jew, Irish vs. British, Serb vs. Croat. One generation paying back for the sins of the former, again and yet again, stretching back centuries - back to the original pair of warring tribes, who would surely have settled their differences diplomatically, had they had only known the a horrible price their children would pay for the convenience of a quick, bloody resolution of their dispute.
Retribution is destruction for the sake of destruction - and has created nothing of value in all of human history. So why does it taste so tantalizingly sweet?
When Nations Kill in the Name of its Citizens
It was highly unsettling to witness the bloodthirsty manner of family/survivors of the bombing: their bitterness on news of the execution's delay, and their gleeful enthusiasm Monday when it was finally carried out. This isn't about justice - it's about payback. Putting on nice suits and televising it through high tech closed-circuit cameras just sanitizes it enough so we can deny that we were participants in a human sacrifice. Putting a tuxedo on a monkey doesn't make him a man. Killing prisoners with 'humane' chemicals change its fundamental ugliness.
In the past weeks, pundits prattle on about 'closure' so much you'd think they were paid a nickel each time they said it. But let's be frank - 'closure' is psychobabble nonsense. If it really takes an execution for people to 'move on,' then families of murder victims in the 90% of the industrialized world that outlaw capital punishment, are doomed to remain locked in their grief forever. And we know damn well this isn't true.
Naïve people may believe otherwise, but vengeance ultimately isn't about the other guy. It's about you - how much civility you want to paint over your savagery, versus how much you wish to honestly rise above them.
Easy to say - hard to do. Me? I know how I should feel - but in my heart, I was cheering on the story of the former PLA soldier choking in the hands of an old prisoner at a wedding. To emphasize: I was cheering on the beating of a 70-year-old man and only wished he could have been bloodied further.
I've lost family members to the PLA too. And I want my anger. I want my rage. I understand why the victims think viewing their attacker ritually killed would ease their grief - because I've imagined such scenarios in excruciating detail myself. But in the quiet days and weeks to follow - I hope they realize what I'm still slowing coming to understand. The victims are no less dead. The wounded are not miraculously healed.
And in the end, we are left with the uncomfortable aftermath: He killed because he wanted to strike what he believed to be a tyrannical government. Exaggerated and certainly misguided, to be sure. We killed because we wanted a ritual human sacrifice to salvage our pride and sate our appetite for blood.
Who's the savage now?
To forgive, to let go, and to lay down your arms. To stride onto the battlefield in the moment you hold the advantage - and offer a hand to your foe to rebuild lands you've burned of each other's in the name of wounded pride. These - these are the ultimate act of heroism. But heroes are hard to come by these days.
One day, perhaps I can.
One day, perhaps I will.
But not today.