I do not ordinarily write in praise of Republican ex-governors of Mississippi, particularly dyed-in-the-wool conservatives such as Haley Barbour. I certainly tend not to come to their defense in the face of widespread social outrage as a result of a decision they have made or an action they have taken. All precedent, however, exists for the breaking. As most of you know by now, Haley Barbour pardoned over a hundred criminals under the jurisdiction of various wings of the Mississippi penal system, including parole boards. The decision provoked outrage not because it covered parolees, but because it freed four convicted murderers who can now, if the pardons stick—which they may not—vote, work, and, the real rub, purchase guns ostensibly so they can hunt. Coverage of this case that I have seen on CNN focuses on two principal issues. First, indignation over the release of men who did horrible things, and the fear of people who see themselves as potential further victims. Second, a technicality Barbour ignored, namely the publication a month in advance of the requests for pardon, not made in this case. In this case, the public and the press see Barbour as running roughshod over the law. Technicalities to some degree aside, I beg to differ. The technicality first. One can imagine the governor reasoning as follows. If the large number of pardon requests became public, particularly those of the murderers, Barbour might have had his hands tied in advance of forgiving so many, ostensibly one reason for the law requiring publication in the first place. He probably foresaw the firestorm and elected to risk the consequences, a luxury available to a truly retiring politician. He has no need of votes anymore. Which brings us to the second issue. Barbour made a fundamental judgment based on the notion that the penal system can reform its inmates, not just punish them with incarceration. Or rather, that some inmates reform themselves. Unlike those appalled by his decision, he asserted the remarkable position that if Christian values have any sway in this society—witness Mississippi’s position smack in the middle of the Bible belt—they must apply unilaterally, not just when they seem convenient. I generally disagree with Haley Barbour’s positions on any number of issues, but my respect for him has risen immeasurably. Here we have a man acting on his principles, and having his name taken in vain for it, as though Portia has proclaimed that “the quality of mercy is not strained” and thousands of Shylocks insist instead on their pound of flesh and nothing less. Phil Ochs once sang that Mississippi should “find another country to be part of,” a sentiment that will no doubt fall on self-righteously deaf ears in Jackson and beyond. The shame, though, lies not in the actions of a man willing to put forgiveness and faith in humanity ahead of insistence on the letter of the law, but in the shrill, frightened voices of those who cannot, will not see his point, who deny forgiveness any role in our legal system, especially insofar as it involves murderers. If we have come so far as to deny any hope for the humanity of those who commit inhuman acts, what does that say about our humanity? I used to make the drive from Lynchburg, Virginia to Charlottesville and back fairly regularly on Friday afternoons. Coming back I would often see a large, smiling black man standing on the side of the road and waving enthusiastically to passing motorists on US Rt. 29. For a year or so I thought him surely mad or retarded. It turns out he had killed someone, gone to jail, and gained release in circumstances none of which I know well. He had sworn to himself to do penance for his past every day by trying to make folks smile. I came to really regret those days when I drove by at the wrong time and missed him. Haley Barbour knew some of these pardoned men, including at least one murderer but I believe all four, from a governor’s mansion work detail. Surely prison officials thought highly of these individuals to send them on work release in the first place. As Barbour said, these guys worked around his own grandchildren. Haley Barbour saw the justice in forgiveness. Why can the rest of us not trust his judgment and respect his acting on his convictions within his powers as governor? Has forgiveness come to seem so naïve in our cynical world?
Chapel Hill, NC
January 14, 2012