Atlanta is Not Far Enough Away

I’m afraid of my brothers doing something they can’t come back from.

Not as afraid as I was when we were younger and they were–allegedly–dealing drugs and robbing bars and stealing from each other, and basically living like the James Gang. I didn’t think they’d kill anyone intentionally, but I worried all the time that they’d do something stupid and end up killing someone or themselves on accident.

But their newfound sanity and law-abiding-ness still feels too tentative to me, too fragile. And I worry that neither of them have a good enough reason to keep doing things the hard way, when the easy way is so much fun and, as long as you don’t get caught, lucrative.

Because, it’s hard in ways we don’t often acknowledge, to be good, to defer our own gratification for the safety and happiness of others. And it’s so easy to do wrong and go wrong and, once you go, to keep on going.

You have to care about something–your family, your god or whatever–or fear something–getting stuck in rural Illinois, going to prison, dying, whatever–so much that you’re willing to do whatever it takes, no matter how boring, in order to keep from self-destructing.

I don’t think people are inherently evil, but I know they are inherently selfish and that selfishness is easily corrupted into evil.

This morning, on Headline News, they showed a brief clip of Mark Nichols on Larry King Live talking about how weird this all was and how he always thought of his brother, Brian, as the stable one and how they’d stay up all night and play Madden. It broke my heart, it sounded so ordinary.

Last night on Dan Abrams, Dan was reading letters from people and one of them was criticizing Ashley Smith–Brian Nichols’ hostage–for not fleeing earlier in the morning, as if everyone knows exactly what to do when being held hostage and she was remiss for not doing it.

They’d shown Ashley Smith earlier, talking about her ordeal and how she felt that her god had put her in the path of Nichols for a reason. Her two guesses for that reason were the widely reported “so that he wouldn’t kill anyone else” and the “so that he can experience God’s love and share it in prison.” In other words, she felt he was so profoundly changed by his experience with her, that he’d been saved.

I don’t want to spend too long talking about this, except to say that this is, yet again, another reason why Christianity and our form of government are uneasy bedfellows. She, acting on her beliefs, feels profound compassion for the man that could have very easily killed her. She’s going to visit him in prison. She’s already forgiven him. That kind of compassion is almost unbelievable. (And I think that’s why the letter-writer was compelled to criticize her. Who can stand to see ordinary people, people with flaws as terrible as our own, being heroic in ways we don’t think we can?) And her response to her ordeal argues for something savable in even the most violent killers, which is incompatible with killing them in return.

The grief of the families of his victims, though, is unbearable. The AP has photos from the memorial service up and they are heartbreaking. What kind of person, when presented with a chance to escape, takes a gun and goes into the courtroom and starts killing people instead?

They were talking last night on one of the news shows about how Smith is going to be set for life because someone will want to take her story and make it into a movie.

It seems like they’ll have to turn it into a narrative of some sort, to give it a plot arc, and clear more-than-human heroes and a clear less-than-human villain. Right now, it’s unbearable. Here’s a man who was loved by his brother but who savaged his girlfriend, who wanted to hang curtains for his hostage, but killed a court clerk. It’d be a lot easier to see him as a Hollywood villain than it is to see him as someone like any of us.

And there’s a woman, whose life had gone wrong in the ways all our lives turn out a little sadder and harder than we’d hoped, who ends up being a hero.

And there are the ordinary families and friends of ordinary people who are now dead for no good reason.

If Hollywood takes this over, it won’t be us anymore. They’ll have instantly recognizable stars who are better-looking and flashier than us in all the important roles. The story will be condensed and simplified into something we can understand without agonizing over it. Atlanta will be reduced to five or six good establishing shots and the courthouse will be spiffed up or dirtied down to set the proper mood.

The experience will be taken out of our neighborhoods and worked over until it’s molten and moldable and then sold back to us in a form that’s no longer too familiar.

Then, it’ll follow the usual scripts, with people outraged that the movie glorifies violence, or thrilled that it delivers their political or religious message, and there will be the usual red carpet coverage of the film’s opening, and the interviews with the stars.

It’ll be Hollywood.

Frankly, I can’t wait for that. Right now, it’s too real, the feeling that this is the kind of thing that could happen to any of us, that we’re all just one wrong choice away from sitting on Larry King Live trying to explain, to understand, how the brother we love is that man who did those horrible things.