OH, GROW UP…
These days in Chicago, the George Ryan corruption trial is all the media rage. I am particularly intrigued by it, though not directly. I am less interested in the facts of the case than I am focused on the way it is being played by the prosecutors and the media, and also how it is being received in the political fishbowl that is my workplace.
Yesterday the trial was all over the local TV news (which was, at varying times, on all three televisions on the ground floor of the firehouse at which I was working). One veteran firefighter told me that he was hoping Ryan would get convicted because Ryan commuted the death sentence of a man who had killed his (the firefighter’s) police officer relative some years ago. The language this firefighter was using (e.g. “he let him off”) would make someone unfamiliar with the story think that Ryan had freed all the convicted murderers in addition to freeing the wrongly convicted. As I remarked (with as neutral a tone as possible), “it’s not like they (the rightfully convicted) will ever see the light of day. They’re still in prison for life.” His response? “Now I don’t get closure.” He went on to rant a bit about how we should just wait a few weeks after every murder conviction, then put the convicted up against a firing squad. He claimed that this would drop the murder rate immediately. My immediate thought, which I felt there was no point in sharing with someone who should be old and wise enough to know better, was that this fellow had obviously not checked any facts before reaching that conclusion.
Anyway, another of my colleagues wanted Ryan to get locked up because, as he put it, “he killed the Willis family.” If you read the story to which I’ve linked there, you’ll see that Ryan’s defense attorneys have good reason to protest the linking of the Willis family tragedy to the trial. It is highly prejudicial, and factually irrelevant. The Willis family was killed because of the negligence of a truck driver. That driver might have been just as negligent, and the accident may have happened anyway, even if he had obtained his license legally. I have a CDL (commercial truck driver) license (legally obtained), and I am aware that the driver’s first responsibility is the safety of his/her vehicle. More importantly, this principle applies to drivers of all vehicles.
These firefighters’ desire to see Ryan burn (and their two voices were part of a chorus I heard yesterday, one that also included a desire to see Richard M. Daley behind bars) struck me as a bit self-righteous and pointless, but there was something else that I couldn’t pinpoint at the time.
The psychic lens widened a bit as I rode the Brown Line home this morning. I recalled the reactions I’d heard to the news that an off-duty CFD battalion chief had been involved in an alleged fatal drunk driving incident. “Damn shame.” “Could’ve happened to anybody.” “He’s a great guy, too.”
Now, I don’t disagree with any of those statements. I know the chief in question, and he is a really decent individual. In my estimation, had he been sober, he would have been just as likely to stop and help the man he wound up (allegedly) killing. However, he didn’t. He (allegedly) made the choice to drink and drive, and he (allegedly) took an innocent man’s life. So why is it that he gets the sympathetic treatment from the same people who are quick to lock up George Ryan and throw away the key?
Perhaps it is because these firefighters either know the alleged drunk driver, or can identify with him. But what does this say about the consistency of their moral framework? If they hate Daley because of the corruption of his administration, do they also hate him for being a CookCounty State’s Attorney who was locking up innocent men and turning a blind eye to police torture? Do they hate Ryan for his alleged corruption, or for clearing Illinois’ death row? How many of them are supporters of the policies of an administration responsible for ending tens of thousands of innocent lives? (I know that the aforementioned battalion chief is a staunch Bush supporter, or at least he was for the last two elections.)
On the one hand, I can get off my own self-righteous soapbox and chalk all this up to the human frailty that I share in spades. On the other hand, I can’t escape the feeling that this sort of hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance– especially in a representative democracy– can have, and has had, catastrophic and fatal consequences. With all the power we wield as a nation, we need to be more politically mature. The dangers of childish, reactionary politics have become quite obvious over the last twenty-five years.