The assassination of Julius Caesar is known best for the fictional elements that Shakespeare and others invented. Caesar never actually said “Et tu, Brute?,” and Brutus never said “Sic semper tyrannis.” The historical record suggests the dictator remained silent and covered his head while the conspirators rained daggers upon him. The whole scene actually sounds quite grubby. No one even bothered to collect Caesar’s body until slaves got around to it on their own initiative.
The truly amazing fact is that Brutus and Cassius had no real follow-up plan. They lived in a bubble of their own conspiratorial making, and imagined that the great mass of ordinary Roman citizens would laud them as heroes. When this didn’t happen, they simply fled the city as power coalesced around Mark Antony. In the civil war that followed, two sides emerged—those who cast Brutus and Cassius as noble Liberators (as the conspirators called themselves), and those who demanded they be hunted down as enemies of the state.
The stabbing of Caesar was one of history’s most famous homicides—which is why I lead with it. But the binary response to the killing is something you see repeated throughout the centuries. Deadly violence has a polarizing effect on societies. With few exceptions—such as when bloodshed is hermetically contained among criminals or the lower classes more generally—murder demands a morally urgent response. When there’s a political aspect, the killer must be either punished by the old order, or lionized by its replacement. Either way, the rupture in the social fabric has to be sutured up quickly, lest society go to shambles, which is why ancient trials were so quick and ruthless.
But this ancient impulse gradually has become complicated by overlapping cultural forces. As human civilizations have become richer, they have rejected capital punishment and instead put criminals into prisons—which effectively operate as a sort of moral limbo. The rise of Christianity was owed in no small part to the promise that moral redemption was possible for sinners, including thieves, rapists and murderers. In modern times, we recognize that we’re all products of our environment and upbringing, an understanding that challenges the age-old Manichean understanding of the criminal element.
In times of yore, questions of guilt and innocence were political matters that could be hashed out on the battlefield. (The case against Caesar’s killers, for instance, was won at the Battle of Philippi.) But today, we fight wars of the cultural variety. And our moral understanding of a tragedy can be completely destabilized depending on how a narrative is interpreted. In December, for instance, Elizabeth Weil produced an extraordinary portrait of drifter Max Harris, who faces trial for his alleged role in a fire that killed three dozen people at a shambling artists’ commune in Oakland. Anyone who had followed the story superficially (as I had) might have thought that Harris was just some reckless art-house bum who had little concern for the lives of others. What emerges from Weil’s masterful account, instead, is a sensitive, confused man who’d endured many months of bullying, and who exerted himself strenuously trying to avert tragedy when the fire struck.
Another example—this one from Canada—can be found with Omar Khadr, an Arab-Canadian militant who was captured by American forces in Afghanistan when he was just 15, and then imprisoned at Guantanamo for a decade. To this day, Khadr often is described by conservatives as a sort of uber-terrorist almost on par with Osama Bin Laden. Over at the left-leaning CBC, on the other hand, Khadr often has been presented as a sort of angelic martyr to George W. Bush’s war-on-terror lawlessness. As with the old fight between Liberators and Caesarians, the classification is entirely political.
I am not a Christian. But I always have admired its emphasis on forgiveness and absolution, which are the most attractive and useful aspects of that faith. In our own age, this tradition has been co-opted by progressive secularists, who (properly) urge that our criminal-justice systems accommodate the possibility that people can change, and that we aren’t stamped “good” or “evil” at birth by God’s hand.
And just as Christians of yore celebrated the lowly street criminal who shed his criminal ways so that he might wander urban alleyways and country roads humbly preaching the word of God, so, too, do modern leftists reserve a special form of mercy for ex-criminals whose travails have granted them perspective on society’s bowels. Quillette author Zaid Jilani, for instance, recently described a sympathetic article in The Intercept about a murderer who, having paid his debt to society, was running for council in Austin, Texas. The author, Jilani noted, argued that Lewis Conway Jr.’s life experiences made him “an important candidate, able to connect with the thousands who have been isolated and defined by previous misdeeds of theirs or others—especially in the city’s minority communities, which as elsewhere are disproportionately impacted by the system.” In his article, Jilani contrasted the sympathy toward Conway with the treatment of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who, of course, did not kill anyone—or, in fact, commit any crime at all—but rather stands accused of gross insensitivity and racism because of a photo of a man in blackface, and another dressed as a KKK member, included in a 35-year-old university yearbook page.
Jilani intended for this juxtaposition to show up the extraordinary hypocrisy displayed by some leftists when it comes to the treatment of past sins. But I would take the analysis one step further—for when it comes to Northam, it is not really the man’s sins that are at issue—since if that were the basis of judgment, he would be excused many times over thanks to the decades of professional excellence and public service that followed his university years. Rather, what is being impugned is Northam’s very soul. For one of the dominant ersatz-religious conceits of our age is that, when it comes to race, we all are marked by either purity or corruption—that is, in the language of old-timey religion, we are either heretics or believers, asleep or woke, lost or saved. And every tweet we write, every word we utter, every yearbook photo we publish shall be taken as part of the evidentiary record by which we shall be judged.
While the new religion of anti-racism has borrowed this fundamentalist take on human nature, it has very much rejected the leavening Christian tradition of forgiveness and pity. Which is why militant anti-racism now carries such a brittle, mean-spirited aspect. The subtext of the campaign against Northam is that his actions mark his soul as irredeemably stained—no matter whether the yearbook photos were from 35 years ago or last week. In the way that anti-racism promotes the idea of bigotry as a form of original sin that, once revealed, cannot ever be expunged or denied, it essentially channels the idea of hell-bound pre-destination in a way that would have earned appreciative nods from Gottschalk of Orbais.
Any creed, religious or secular, that organizes humanity into categories of good or evil based not on actions, but on their mere thoughts or the presumed state of their soul, is disposed toward Inquisition and social panic—since our thoughts are invisible to others, evil can lurk in our unconscious minds, and all that matters is whether our cast of mind puts us on the right side of history. (Such attitude was on display, certainly, in the response to Irish actor Liam Neeson’s recent confession that, almost 40 years ago, he once had roamed the streets looking to provoke a violent confrontation with a black man. The confession was rendered freely in the spirit of encouraging self-awareness of our dark emotions, and no real crime is alleged to have taken place. But promotional events associated with his new film were canceled anyway.) In a society that distinguishes the sin from the sinner, on the other hand, recitals of past misdeeds and impure thoughts are tolerated, and even encouraged—as with the Christian tradition of confession. For it is understood that we all share the same goal of preventing malign imaginings from being translated into action.
Earlier this month, the Alberta Teachers’ Association cancelled a conference panel discussion featuring Andrew Evans, a convicted murderer who confessed to the murder of a Vancouver sex-trade worker named Nicole Parisien in 2007. Since leaving prison on parole, Evans has worked with Alberta’s Adolescent Recovery Centre, and had intended to talk about overcoming addictions and bring a message of “hope.” Not so long ago, one would naturally assume that the activists urging the cancelation of this event would be law-and-order conservatives. But because of the nature of the crime at issue in this case, and the #MeToo backdrop, it’s not so clear. Indeed, we now live in an age when hard-right pundits and ultra-progressive feminists have adopted more or less the same hellfire-and-brimstone rhetoric when it comes to sex crimes. Which means that college students will have one less opportunity to learn lessons from any authentic specimen of that vast underclass that exists as both feedstock and output of our criminal-justice system.
When Evans’ panel appearance got canceled, it made me think of a somewhat similar event that took place in 2017, in the form of a University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) panel called “Reflections on Hate and Trauma.”
“We wanted to assemble a diverse group of people who have shared some similar pathways into and out of violent movements,” said Dr. Barbara Perry, who helped organize the proceedings. “We shared with our audience the optimistic message that there is life after experiences such as hate, violence, anger and marginalization.” It was pretty much exactly the same message that Evans had wanted to deliver, except that the UOIT panel included not just one ex-con but several. Yet no one protested at UOIT.
If you visit this news link, you’ll see a photo of one of the panelists, my friend Eddie Hertrich, addressing a packed classroom while dozens of students listen and take notes. Eddie spent more than two decades in jail for murdering another drug dealer as part of some senseless feud. After we were introduced in 2015 by his lawyer, Eddie wrote about his criminal past for the magazine I then edited. Now his story has been turned into a book, which will be released later this month by Canada’s Dundurn Press.
I remember being anxious about running Eddie’s work in my magazine, as there recently had been a number of controversies in the Canadian literary world in regard to publishing the “wrong” sort of author—a poet who was accused of intimidating an ex-girlfriend, a university professor who had been accused (falsely) of raping a girlfriend, a novelist who had stood up for due process. Surely, publishing an outright murderer was far worse than any of that, I naively imagined. But in the end, not a single person complained. It was a total non-event—because the murder of one drug dealer by another is not a matter that concerns the priests of the inquisition. On the other hand, had Eddie appeared in a photo with his victim, wearing blackface and hood—instead of merely killing him in rural Ontario and leaving the body in a ditch—well, that would have been a far more serious issue.
Eddie’s book is worth reading—not because he was an especially unusual criminal, but because he wasn’t, and his story stands in for all the many thousands of others who will live similarly hard lives without ever telling the world how things went wrong. He grew up poor in Toronto, fell ass-backwards into crime thanks to his older brother, chased money and women, hurt people, made enemies, killed one of them, got caught, then spent much of the rest of his life trying to survive prison. Along the way, he became a better person—and a pretty good writer, too. When he got out a few years ago, he made good decisions, found honest work, shunned his enablers, lived clean. As much as Northam, Neeson, Harris, Evans and all the other figures I’ve mentioned above, he is as complex and mutable as you and me—and a living rebuke to the idea that any of us have some true character, good or bad, that will forever define us.
Jonathan Kay is Canadian editor of Quillette. Follow him at @jonkay.