This Is Just to Say

You know what would be cool? If the President pardoned innocent people on Death Row instead of turkeys.

I wrote this last night, and it quickly turned into one of the most quoted things I have ever written. Evidently it spoke to a lot of people.

Watching the President indulge in the ritual pardoning of the turkey yesterday, I couldn’t help but be struck by the scene. He was making a bit of a joke out of it, fun and games, with a whiff of embedded commentary in his speechmaking, but here’s an event which is widely publicized every year and very widely reported. The media laps it up; it’s supposed to be a feel good moment, watching the President officially pardon a turkey, this potent symbol of one of the more bizarre holidays celebrated in America, in which people eat a large meal to rejoice for the fact that Europeans displaced Native Americans with murder, policy, disease, systematic discrimination, and then occupied their land.

This potent symbol of American industrial agriculture, a bird so overbred that it will not be able to walk when it fully matures.  (The President does not pardon a Heritage Turkey, he pardons a Broad Breasted White, a bird which, incidentally, cannot breed on its own.) That white turkey emblemizes so many problematic things, it’s a surprise the poor thing doesn’t topple over from the strain.

Meanwhile, there are innocent people on Death Row.

This country executes people who are known to be innocent.

A human being and a turkey are two very different things.

The President can pardon a turkey, but not a human being? A feel good photo opportunity can be staged with a bird, but not a person? The media can universally acclaim a President who magnanimously spares the life of a turkey, while reporting with eager glee only days earlier on the execution of a real live person?

I understand that this is a nation in which we try to maintain a separation between the branches of government, in which the Executive is not supposed to interfere in the Judicial, but the Judicial is rife with problems. And I would like to see those problems being addressed. I would like to know why the prison population consists primarily of poor people of colour. I would like to know how it is that governors can refuse to write a stay of execution when they are presented with incontrovertible evidence that the person condemned to die is innocent. I would like to know why it is that we kill people in the name of the state at all, really.

I would like to know why it is that the President of the United States can pardon a turkey for a press relations opportunity, but not a human being.

Oh, but it would be too political to pardon a prisoner on Thanksgiving! Oh, it would be too political for a Black President to pardon an innocent Black man on Death Row! Oh, it would be too political for the President to criticize the very real and serious flaws in the American judicial system! We must appease! We cannot ruffle feathers! (But we can pardon feathered creatures.)

The President is a symbol, a leader, something larger than life, a mythos. And yes, it would send exactly the wrong signal if the President pardoned an innocent prisoner; it would suggest that our judicial system is so flawed that it takes intervention from another branch of government for justice to be done. It would suggest that we should not and will not tolerate incarceration and execution of the innocent.

It would suggest that we have something for which to atone.

And we certainly wouldn’t want to say that on Thanksgiving, now would we?