Bill Moyers talks with the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization about capital punishment and its place in American culture. The program also revisits an interview with Desmond Tutu.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. I’d like to introduce you to someone I’ve long wanted you to know. He has steeped himself in thousands of years of history trying to figure out who we are in the 21st century. His name is Thomas Cahill. Much of the year Tom Cahill lives and works here in New York City where he was born to Irish-American parents, graduated from Fordham University with degrees in classical literature and philosophy, and went on to immerse himself in Hebrew and Greek, scripture and theology, film and drama. In 1995 he published the first of a series of best-selling books on the “hinges of history.” Pivotal moments and people in the rise of western culture: HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION, THE GIFT OF THE JEWS, DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS (The World Before And After Jesus), WHY THE GREEKS MATTER and his most recent, MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES. But right now Thomas Cahill has stepped out of the distant past and is writing a book about the death penalty. There are 3350 people on death row in America, and the debate over their fate is back in the news.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: People are not close, they’re kept away from seeing it
BILL MOYERS: Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the best-selling book DEAD MAN WALKING and filmmaker Mario Marazziti of Italy, presented the President of the U.N. General Assembly with five million signatures calling for an end to the death penalty. And Amnesty International urged the UN to pass a resolution for a moratorium on capital punishment declaring that it ‘has never been shown to deter crime more effectively than other punishments.’ Not so, said this op-ed on the editorial page of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, arguing that ‘capital punishment works.’ The American Bar Association has also called for a moratorium on capital punishment. And in late October, just moments before a prisoner in Mississippi was scheduled to die by lethal injection, the Supreme Court issued a stay of execution. This month, New Jersey became the first state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty, sparing the lives of eight men on the state’s death row. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 1099 people have been executed. Texas leads the way with 405 – four times the nearest state. One of those executed in Texas was Dominique Green – put to death three years ago by lethal injection.
NEWS ANCHOR: Inside the Walls Unit, the execution started. Outside, the victims son…
BILL MOYERS: It was a big story on local news.
NEWS ANCHOR: Green was executed after a last minute ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.
NEWS ANCHOR: When he was sentenced to death for robbing and killing a man in a Houston store.
BILL MOYERS: During his stay on death row Dominique Green had written a letter to a newspaper in Italy, asking for help. Because of Italy’s opposition to the death penalty, the Roman Coliseum is lit up when a death sentence is commuted somewhere in the world or when a country abolishes capital punishment. Across the Tiber River from the Coliseum is an international community of social justice known as Sant’Egidio, in the very neighborhood where Tom Cahill and his wife Susan live when they’re not in New York. And that’s how Cahill heard of Dominique Green. Here in the states he arranged for his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa to visit Green at the prison in Texas. They talked for two hours in private and Tutu then issued a plea on behalf of Green, calling the death penalty ‘an absurdity that brutalizes society.’ It didn’t matter. Dominique Green was put to death at 7:59 p.m. On October 26, 2004. Dominique Green is the subject of Thomas Cahill’s next book. Cahill’s work chronicling the roots of western civilization is a pageant of events and personalities. But right now he is absorbed with the story of one man’s life and death.
BILL MOYERS: Tom Cahill, thanks for joining me on the JOURNAL.
THOMAS CAHILL: Bill, it’s always a pleasure to be invited.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me, what was Dominique Green’s story? Where did he come from and where did he wind up?
THOMAS CAHILL: He came from an alcoholic drug-using household. He was sexually abused several times. He was put in juvenile homes. He was — just about everything that could be done to him that anyone could imagine being done to a child, was done to him. When it says in the Old Testament that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children into the third and fourth generation, I think that’s correct, that these terrible things that go on in families go from one generation to another to another.
BILL MOYERS: So, what happened on the night that he wound up being accused of murder?
THOMAS CAHILL: They were robbing people in a number of different situations —
BILL MOYERS: He and a group of kids?
THOMAS CAHILL: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: And there are people in Texas who swear that Dominique Green pulled the trigger that killed the man for whom he was convicted of murdering.
THOMAS CAHILL: Right. But what actually happened was — and it’s in an instance of how badly this is done in Texas, there were four kids. One of them was white. He was not charged with anything. Ever. And you cannot interview him til this day.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
THOMAS CAHILL: You can’t find him. But he exists. I know his name. And the other three were black. Dominique was the youngest. And the two others turned against him to get lighter sentences, it looks to me. And they decided that he would take the rap. He was certainly guilty of robbery. I don’t think he was guilty of murder. But even if he was, I don’t think — – that’s not what I see in this. What I see in this is that we as a country are actually sacrificing children to an evil God, to the God of whatever this justice is that we — instead of take — instead of doing something for Dominique Green who grew up without the aid of civilization, we condemn him to death, and to the torture of 11 years on death row. There was a trial. There was very bad representation. The judge that Dominique came up before was the same judge who in a slightly earlier appeal had been asked to reverse a decision because the lawyer who represented this kid in this earlier trial, had slept throughout the trial. And everyone had seen that and everyone knew about it. And the judge, in his decision, said, “The Constitution gives you the right to a lawyer. It doesn’t say whether he has to be awake or not.” So, I mean, this sort of — there is, I think throughout the country but especially in the state of Texas, there is a kind of collusion among lawyers whether they’re prosecutors or defenders, and judges, and an awful lot of horrible things happen in order to get as many people as possible executed.
BILL MOYERS: But there is the question of a crime and of justice as some people see it.
THOMAS CAHILL: The crime is secondary. Crime is secondary. There are no millionaires on death row nor will there ever be. Almost everyone on death row is poor. And do you really think that no millionaire ever committed a capital crime?
BILL MOYERS: So what are you saying?
THOMAS CAHILL: I’m saying that there are certain people in our society that we are willing to offer up. And not others. And they’re the people who have no power. We’re not killing Dominique Green because he committed murder. We’re killing Dominique Green because we want to kill somebody.
BILL MOYERS: How do you deal with people who say what would Tom Cahill write if he were part of the family of someone who’d been killed by someone on death row?
THOMAS CAHILL: I understand very much the feeling of somebody who has lost a person through murder. I understand very much why they would not necessarily be willing to sign on to Texans Against the Death Penalty or any other such organization. But however difficult it may be the only way you are going to gain closure is to let go of your hatred. Holding on to it is never going to get you out of it. It’s never going to get you out of the bind, the knot that you’re in. I don’t see how it can. The widow of Andrew Lastrapes, the man who was killed in the incident for which Dominique was executed said to me, “Of course, I forgive Dominique. And I forgive them all.” And I said, “How do you do that?” And she said, “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?” She’s an extremely bright but simple woman. But she had no doubts about where her values lay. That doesn’t mean that I would be able to say that if such a thing had just happened to me. I understand very much the rage, all right. I’m full of rages myself, you know.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that most of the democratic world has given up capital punishment? You know, there’s a new movement internationally to ban it.
THOMAS CAHILL: And that’s true. Throughout Italy, when we — though it doesn’t happen here, you won’t see the name in the New York Times, when we — you may see it on a back page. But when we actually execute someone, it’s front-page news throughout Italy.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that?
THOMAS CAHILL: They care deeply about — because they consider it to be a terrible injustice that people are still being executed. You know, you cannot join the European Union as a country if you execute people
BILL MOYERS: Have you seen those photographs of the Iranians hoisting their targeted prisoners up on a crane while thousands of men and women shout, “God is great — God is great.” What does that mean?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, it wasn’t all that long ago that we did things like that. Now we execute in private or, you know, out of the public square. But, it wasn’t all that long ago that in the west, we were executing publicly and people would come. It was a big deal. They’d bring a picnic lunch and sit there with their children and watch some guy be strung up. I mean, how long ago was that?
BILL MOYERS: The Taliban do it. Al-Qaeda does it. The IRA in Ireland did it. Bin Laden says that chopping off heads is a justified form of punishment. And what does it say that violent death becomes a policy option? That in the name of life, we take life. What does that say to you?
THOMAS CAHILL: I think that there are many things within the human soul or within the human character that we ignore. There’s a tendency to violence in all of us. There’s even, I believe, a prehistoric desire for human sacrifice. We see it in all ancient cultures. I refer to it in HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION. The Irish knew — the Irish sacrificed children and — victims of war and all that sort of stuff before Christianity came in. The Jews seemed to have been doing it in the time of Genesis when so many anthropologists believe that the aqedah – the near sacrifice of Isaac – is an example of the Jews finally rejecting human sacrifice.
BILL MOYERS: Is the death penalty important for historians looking at civilization as you have done? Does it tell you something that you wouldn’t get anywhere else?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, getting rid of it is a very new phenomenon. You know, it wasn’t very long ago that all civil — all societies had the death penalty. So, it’s a little early to say how important it’s going to be. I mean, a historian really wants a few hundred years to elapse before he makes a statement about anything. But I think it will be important. I think it’s among the touchstones — right now of where different societies are going. The crueler societies, China, Saudi Arabia, the United States support the death penalty. The easier, more open, more generous societies, like Western Europe do not.
BILL MOYERS: And yet that’s the continent that was ravaged by one war after another for so long.
THOMAS CAHILL: They finally learned something. I really do believe that that – thanks especially to what happened in the First and Second World Wars in which they behaved abominably they learned that it was time not to do that anymore. And that’s basically what at the end of the 17th century the original Anabaptists were doing. The people who became the Quakers and the —
BILL MOYERS: Mennonites —
THOMAS CAHILL: Mennonites —
BILL MOYERS: And the Amish and all of those.
THOMAS CAHILL: You know? They were saying, “No, no, this is — ” they were the first people against capital punishment. They were the very first people to oppose it and to try to reform prisons so that they would not simply be places where people were punished. They were to be put in penitentiaries. Places where people could repent.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Penitence was to —
THOMAS CAHILL: Yeah!
BILL MOYERS: …happen there. As you say happened in the case — you really believe it happened in the case of Dominique Green.
THOMAS CAHILL: Oh, yeah, yeah. Very much. I mean, a man who goes up and down death row and gets everybody to forgive and be forgiven is not a — is not somebody we have to be afraid of.
BILL MOYERS: Dominique Green requested that he be cremated and that the ashes placed in that marvelous church Santa Maria Church in the district of Rome, where you and Susan have a second home. Did that happen?
THOMAS CAHILL: Yes, he could not be buried within the Basilica of Santa Maria, itself, because of laws against interment within those churches that are secular laws of the Italian state. But, he has been interred in a beautiful anteroom within the Piazza of Santa Maria. That’s where he is. He wanted to be taken out of Livingston. And well, he actually would have been buried not in Livingston but in Huntsville. The death row is in Livingston. But, the night before their executions, they are brought to Huntsville. And there’s an enormous burial ground there. It goes on for miles.
BILL MOYERS: We were in Rome in the spring. We were in your neighborhood. But we also went over to the Coliseum where the lions used to tear the gladiators to shreds. And you can’t help but think about how this cockpit of cruelty has become one of the world’s great tourist attractions. Now, what does that say to you?
THOMAS CAHILL: Yeah, well, it says something that we don’t, again, want to look at. But — you know, it is the single largest monument to human cruelty in the world, the Coliseum. Now the Coliseum is on the list of the seven wonders of the world, the new seven wonders.
BILL MOYERS: What is it? Help me understand that psychology.
THOMAS CAHILL: Why have there been so many movies about Romans sitting in the Coliseum going like that? We get a kick out of it. The real evil in the world, it seems to me, is cruelty. That’s — to me the word evil equals cruelty. It’s human cruelty that is evil. And you — we all have to deal with that. We all have a tendency to that that we’re not willing – we’re not willing to acknowledge that this is inside of us. It’s there.
BILL MOYERS: You write in the beginning of DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS, quote, “The history of the world, like the history of its hills is written in blood.” Has there ever been any period when that wasn’t so that you’ve studied?
THOMAS CAHILL: There are times, I think, when that does happen. There are — it’s hard to find in Greco-Roman civilization. But you find it, for instance, in the communities set up by Francis of Assisi. You find it in among the Quakers. Now none of those people have been able to transform whole societies. But they did create a moment — what I would think of as a Shangri-La moment.
BILL MOYERS: What’s their characteristic? What do they share in common?
THOMAS CAHILL: People who were able to, I think, recognize what human cruelty is about and renounce it. It doesn’t really matter whether they said explicitly, “I renounce human cruelty.” What was important is that they begin to treat one another — Francis of Assisi said that the best thing you can do to any other person is to say to him or her, “May the lord give you peace. And that’s how we should go about our business. May the lord give you peace.” Well, that all — that already puts you in a completely different mindset it seems to me. And he said, “You do that with everybody.” You know, it doesn’t matter whether he’s a leper or a heretic or a Muslim. May the lord give you peace.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve studied history enough to know what works for the individual in a small realm of relationship isn’t a rule that the nation state can live by is it?
THOMAS CAHILL: I don’t think that real civilization ever occurs because of anything that a nation state does. It occurs because of movements within the nation state that are led by sometimes one individual or a series of individuals. Desmond Tutu is an excellent example of that. And in fact, I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anybody before. In each of the books that I’ve written, I — when I come upon a great historical figure that I’m trying to deal with I try to think of someone I know who is like that person. And my model for Saint Patrick is Desmond Tutu. Which I think he would be surprised to hear too, but Tutu in South Africa and his wife, who should not be forgotten Leah Tutu and their children, their four children, they live — the whole time those children were growing up, 25, 30 years, they were under — they were in danger of being assassinated. The entire time those six people were in danger of death by hatred. Nelson Mandela is always credited with so much. And I don’t mean to take anything away from him. But he was in prison for 27 of those years. He wasn’t on the scene. It was Tutu who was on the scene. It was Tutu who would say — who would stand up to these horrible South African guards and say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Our God is a God of resurrection. You’re not going to do us in.” This little guy is five feet four standing up to all the forces of — that really have — of cruelty and evil.
BILL MOYERS: So, it’s the individual who acts —
THOMAS CAHILL: And his wife and his children —
BILL MOYERS: Well, they —
THOMAS CAHILL: — and Steven Biko and all the different people that were part — it isn’t just one man.
BILL MOYERS: I’m still wrestling with this abrupt change in your subject matter. I mean, isn’t the story of Dominique Green, one individual executed for a crime way off your beaten path?
THOMAS CAHILL: Yes, it is different from what I’ve been doing for sure. But I don’t think that …well, why am I doing the Hinges of History? What I’m really interested in is what makes for civilization and what does not. So, the people that I’m looking for — the series asks the question, how did we become the people that we are? And why do we think the way we do and feel the way we do and perceive the way we do? But underneath that, what I’m really interested in, is what’s good about us. What do we do that’s good? I started with HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION which is not the beginning of western history by any means for a reason. It was the simplest book — simplest story that I had to tell. And it was about this guy named Patrick who had been a Roman citizen on the Island of Britain who was kidnapped at the age of 16 and taken to Ireland and made into a slave for six years after which he escaped. Then in middle age he returned to Ireland which was a rough, rough place, not a place anybody would willingly return to. And he came back, at that point, with the gospels. And he became the evangelist of the Irish. And what he did in doing that which was a great act of generosity because he spent the last 30 years of his life in Ireland — among these very crazy people who practiced human sacrifice, who had no problem with slavery in its most awful form, who believed in really dark gods. This was quite a group to come and be — decide to spend your life with willingly. In that great act of generosity he also realized that though he was never going to make them Romans or Athenians, he had to teach them to read and write. And so he taught them to read and write from these simple little lives of the saints of the period which are really lives of the martyrs. It was the early Roman martyrs. And it was all the terrible things that the Romans had done to the early Christians, you know. They were eaten by lions. They had their eyes plucked out. They had — you know, they were slowly eviscerated. They were all these different things that had been done to them. Saint Lawrence was burned on a griddle, you know, on one side and then on the other side, all that kind of stuff. The Irish loved these stories. They thought they were dandy. And the only thing that made them sad was that Christianity came into Ireland without any martyrs. Because the Irish just sort of rolled over and accepted it and said, “Yeah, well this really does…this makes more sense than what we were doing.” It was so much more — it was so superior. But what Patrick also did in teaching them to read and write was they ended up setting themselves the task in the sixth, seventh and eighth century of copying out all of western literature, the whole of the western library which was in danger of extinction at that time because the Germanic barbarians had invaded the Roman Empire and within a century almost no one could read or write. Literacy itself was gone.
BILL MOYERS: So, civilization can be taken away.
THOMAS CAHILL: If there are no books there’s no civilization. That’s for sure. And that of course, the Germanic barbarians thought that the only thing books were good for was as kindling. They had no other use for it. So, at this period you have these very simple people who had been great warriors and crazy kidnappers and all that sort of stuff sitting down and deciding what they would do is copy out Plato, which, of course, they couldn’t understand. But they thought it was important. And they had learned the alphabet. And damn it they were going to do this. It was difficult. And that was one thing that the Irish did like. They liked things that were difficult. So, they copied out all of Latin and Greek literature. And they added to it in the margins. Because they couldn’t understand the Plato very well. And it was kind of hard for the scribe to copy page after page of Plato without understanding it very well. He started doodling in the margins. And that’s the beginning of the great books like the Book of Kells, the great decorated books. And you have all these funny little medieval people peeping through in the margins. And then he would sometimes put in little comments or jokes or a little poem that had been part of the repertoire of the wandering bards. And so, that Irish becomes the first vernacular literature to be copied out and written down.
BILL MOYERS: You start that book on the Irish with a chapter on the fall of Rome. What do you think about these analogies between the fall of Rome – the fall of the Roman Empire and the fall of America? Do you think there’s anything to that from your wide sweep of studying history?
THOMAS CAHILL: I would say in some ways yes and in some ways no. You know, there’s — history never repeats itself. That’s one thing you can say about it. It never happens again exactly the same way. So, there are tremendous differences. But we can look into the past and learn things. I think, for instance, why did Rome fall? Because of things interior and exterior. The interior part was less and less just taxation. More and more it was the poor and the middle class that bore the burden of taxation. And the wealthy and very wealthy pretended to pay but didn’t actually. And I think we are in a very similar situation with regard to that. Then the other thing was — the external thing was that you had all of these Germanic barbarians who we think of as marauders and all that. They just wanted in. They were on the wrong side of the river. And they knew it. They wanted to have farms and vineyards like the Romans had. They thought it looked great. They wanted to cross the river. You know, what they were? They were immigrants. That’s who they were not at all unlike the situation today at the borders of our country and the borders of Europe.
THOMAS CAHILL: And what happened was despite the unjust taxation or despite — taxation in any form, the Romans could not pay to keep them out. No matter what they did they couldn’t make that border guard and those walls high enough and strong enough to keep out the barbarians. If people really want to get in they’re going to find a way in.
BILL MOYERS: How did Christians learn tolerance over time?
THOMAS CAHILL: I think it all has to do with Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries where both sides, both Protestants and Catholics, eliminated one another to their heart’s content. I mean, they couldn’t have been — they liked nothing better than a bonfire and putting somebody in the middle of it. And that was happening on both sides. You know, the — as somebody said at one point, in Papal Rome, there were more heads on the bridge that led out of the Vatican than there were melons in the market. And that was — but you could have said that about Geneva. You could have said that about London. You could have gone on and on with all of them. What finally happened with people like Voltaire who were — at least expressly sort of outside religious circles, they began to say, “Do we really have to keep doing this? Do we really — is this the only way? You know — does the religion of the monarch have to be the religion of all his subjects? Is that really necessary?” And the answer they gave was no. And you begin to have enlightened monarchs who say no. You know, we’re going to get rid of a few of these disabilities here, you know. But that’s the beginning of steps being taken in a new direction until you get the United States of America, the first country on earth in which the — the — that is built on tolerance. It starts with tolerance.
BILL MOYERS: Well, unless you were an indigenous American or —
THOMAS CAHILL: You bet.
BILL MOYERS: — Native American or a slave — or an African brought over — four million — several million —
THOMAS CAHILL: Or unless you were even, you know, late 19th century Irish immigrant. So, there are plenty of exceptions. Plenty of things were — plenty of times where it doesn’t work. And yet it’s a new idea.
BILL MOYERS: You once said that Christianity’s dark history of crusades, inquisitions and pogroms lies not as far in the past as we might prefer to think. Because, going back to the Constitution, you said a country’s finally emerged, our own, that officially refused to play the old game of whose religion was true. That America fostered a generously agnostic view of religious truth. You may believe what you like, Tom Cahill. And I may believe as I want. And we don’t impose our beliefs on each other. Is that changing?
THOMAS CAHILL: It may be changing somewhat in the face of militant Islam. I think we are going to have to find a way of dealing with Islam that is better than the way that we have constructed so far.
BILL MOYERS: And they with us.
THOMAS CAHILL: Absolutely, absolutely, but we already have gone through that process. It was called the Enlightenment. And the result of the Enlightenment was the American Constitution. We — that was the process by which we said, “Do we really have to keep killing one another?” No, now the Muslims have not gone through that. And the Sunnis and the Shiites still think that they have to keep killing one another. And God knows that the Wahabis and any number of other sects have — you know, hate one another with far greater ferocity than they hate us. Religious history shows you over and over again that you hate most of all the people that are closest to you but just a little bit different. Protestants and Catholics throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, you know, if you were a Martian coming you would have said, “Well, what are they arguing about? What — they seem to believe the same things more or less. What’s the problem here? Why do millions of people have to die?” You know and as Jonathan Swift said, it was really about how you set an egg on the table, you know, with how you got at the meat of the egg. You know — some people did it one way and some people did it another. And that was enough reason to kill. And it more or less does come down to that. You know, I mean, there’s still plenty of people who feel that way. But we have essentially gotten beyond that. It would be a dreadful tragedy if we fell back into that.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that what’s going on now between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq is comparable to what went on between the Catholics and the Protestants in 16th century —
THOMAS CAHILL: It’s so parallel it’s amazing.
BILL MOYERS: In what sense?
THOMAS CAHILL: Because from our point of view, not being Muslims, we look at them. And we say, “What are they arguing about? What’s the big difference between — ” you know, well, I can tell you what some of the differences are. And you would begin to lose interest. Anyone would if they weren’t Muslim. And the same thing about the differences between Catholics and Protestants. I remember once giving a talk in a church. And a guy stood up and said “Do you believe we are saved by faith alone?” And I said, “Well, I believe we’re saved by faith. But I believe with Paul the apostle that we’re saved by faith, hope and charity and the greatest of these is love or charity.” And he walked out. And he’s not going to pay attention -And once I gave the wrong answer — he was leaving. And he wanted me to know that he — I had nothing more to say to him.
BILL MOYERS: — suppose Thomas Cahill is incarnated 1,000 years from now and decides to pick up writing The Hinges of History. What would be the, as of now, the defining characteristic of the American society you would write about in the 20th and 21st century?
THOMAS CAHILL: That all societies have a dream and a nightmare. And our nightmare has been, I think, our racism. We practically committed genocide on the people who were here, the Native Americans. We enslaved another race of people, the Africans. And then we dropped the atom bomb on Asians. We would have never dropped that bomb in Europe in my view. And I think that’s what proves the racism of it. That’s the nightmare of America. The dream of America is enunciated by the great speech by Martin Luther King I Have a Dream. The dream is that there is no country on earth that has tried to actually embrace all the people that we have tried to embrace. All you have to do is walk through New York City to see that or any of our cities and not a few of our country sides at this point. We could be called the most racist. Or we could be called the least. We are both. And it always remains a tension and a question as to which side of us, the good side or the bad side, will win out in the end. And I think that’s true for every society.
BILL MOYERS: Let me come back to Dominique Green’s story. Did you find Dominique Green to have turned that prison cell and death row into a zone of peace?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, you see in somebody’s body and their face and their eyes, in the way they move what they’re about. This was somebody who was deeply at peace with himself. Who was perfectly happy to go out toward another person and be in communication, who embraced you with his language if not with his body since he couldn’t get through the glass partition.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve got to help me understand that. Because I’m imagining you seeing him through that glass partition. This is a man everybody down there thinks has killed another man. And something communicates itself to you through that glass partition.
BILL MOYERS: So, what struck you?
THOMAS CAHILL: Instead of talking about himself and what the poor conditions he had to live in and all the things that I already knew about, he wanted desperately to talk about books and writing. And he had become a great reader in the 11 years that he had been in prison. The book that he had read most recently that he really cared deeply about was Desmond Tutu’s book NO FUTURE WITHOUT FORGIVENESS, which is Archbishop Tutu’s book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But what also came out was that even though they’re all in solitary confinement and you would think they can’t communicate with one another, they manage. Because human beings are incredibly resourceful in situations like this. And Dominique was able to send that book after he had read it, up and down that death row.
BILL MOYERS: Tutu’s book?
THOMAS CAHILL: Yeah. And most of the inmates on death row agreed that they had to forgive all the people who had hurt them and ask for forgiveness from all the people that they had hurt if they could, insofar as they could. So, there was this tremendous — I think you’d have to call it a conversion. That’s certainly what it sounds like to me, all these guys on death row that nobody cares about and everybody wants to execute offering forgiveness and asking forgiveness on the basis of a book.
BILL MOYERS: How did that play out practically? I mean, did Dominique Green ever get to communicate that to the families of the victim in that crime?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, the victim was a man named Andrew Lastrapes, who was I think he was still in his 30s when it happened. And he had two small children – two sons – who became intimate friends of Dominique in his last days. Dominique, of course, you don’t have an awful lot of things to give away on death row. Dominique gave Tutu’s book to one of the sons of Andrew Lastrapes. And the other son received a rosary that Dominique kept around his neck. And each bead on that rosary was a reminder of one of the people on death row who had been executed before Dominique and who had helped Dominique to become the person that he became.
BILL MOYERS: But he was a different man after 11 years from —
THOMAS CAHILL: Well —
BILL MOYERS: — the 19-year-old who was arrested for the killing, right?
THOMAS CAHILL: You know that was his — That cell in that prison became the means of his transformation.
BILL MOYERS: Thomas Cahill, thank you for joining me on THE JOURNAL.
THOMAS CAHILL: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: You heard Thomas Cahill refer several times to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African who’s book on forgiveness so deeply touched Dominique Green the man who Cahill himself said reminds him of St. Patrick of Ireland. I’ve interviewed the Archbishop several times over the years here’s an excerpt from our meeting in 1999.
BILL MOYERS: I saw some footage of an angry black crowd turning on a black policeman who the crowd suspected of being an informer, an agent, a traitor…. And you were in the picture you put yourself, thrust yourself, between that angry crowd and that victim. Didn’t you think you might be killed?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: When you are standing at the edge of a sidewalk and there is a little child and there’s a car coming along and the child walks across the street in the path of the oncoming car, do you stand on the sidewalk and say if I go I might get killed? You don’t even think, you act.
BILL MOYERS: Did you have fear?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Not at the time. It’s afterwards, when I saw it on television I said, “What in the name of everything that is good had got into me?” No, because I think the most of us would do that.
BILL MOYERS: Desmond Tutu was born in 1931 in an impoverished township in South Africa.
BILL MOYERS: He wanted to be a doctor, but wound up a parish priest and a prophet.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU (From speech): For until blacks are free, no one in this country is going to be free.
BILL MOYERS: For 30 years he was a leader in his people’s struggle to end apartheid, the rule of white supremacy.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU (From speech): If you think you can stop us from becoming free, you are going to be stampeded.
BILL MOYERS: The course was hard and costly.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU (From speech): The system tries all it can to destroy us. It won’t succeed. God is on our side.
BILL MOYERS: In 1984, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. One year later, even as his own people still could not vote, the Anglican Church enthroned him as the first black archbishop in South Africa. In 1994, millions of black South Africans, including Tutu, voted for the first time. Nelson Mandela was elected president. Apartheid was no longer the law of the land. But the nation’s healing had just begun. Mandela asked Archbishop Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its mandate was to document the horrors of apartheid and to sow the seeds of reconciliation between blacks and whites.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We do want to forgive. But-I mean, we don’t know how to forgive because we don’t know the killers, you know.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He had a gun in his hand pointed at my forehead.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The act of opening the magazine was the detonating device for a bomb.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) And then they said to me, “Today you are going to die.”
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Through translator) During that period, we were suffocated.
BILL MOYERS: How did you manage to sit there day after day and hear these stories of terrible things that people had been doing to other people?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: It was terrible, but — and I cry easily. That is I broke down on the very first day. But I then said it wasn’t fair, ‘God, you couldn’t allow this to happen,’ because the media then concentrated on me instead of on the people who were the rightful subjects, the victims. And if I wanted to cry, then I would cry at home or in church. But I was sustained by prayer, yes.
BILL MOYERS: What was the worst thing about apartheid?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Ultimately, it is actually when it makes you doubt that you are a child of God. When you are subjected to treatment that begins to work in here and you begin to say, maybe they are right. Language is very powerful, language does not just describe reality, language creates the reality it describes. And so when they call you a non-European, a non-this you may think it is not working on you, but in fact it is corrosive of your self image. You end up wondering whether you are actually as human as those others.
BILL MOYERS: This report that your commission released, has been called one of the most important documents in the 20th century. What would you like of it for the world to take to heart?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: I would hope that the world would realize that there is no situation that is not transfigurable, that there is no situation of which we can say, ‘This is absolutely, totally devoid of hope,’ because that is what people thought about South Africa. And that the star turns of this report are those we wrongly call just ordinary people. There are no ordinary people in my theology, but it is the small people, the ones who used to be nonentities, they are the stars and for the world to know that those called-so-called ordinary people are incredible.
BILL MOYERS: What do you actually do when you forgive someone?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Well, basically, you are saying ‘I am abandoning my right to revenge, to payback. I mean, I have… By the fact that you have abused me, you have hurt me, or -whatever it is that you have done, you have wronged me. By that you have given me a certain right as – over you that I could refuse to forgive you. I could say that I have the right to retribution.’ When I forgive, I say, ‘I jettison that right, and I open the door of opportunity to you, to make a new beginning.’ That is what I do when I forgive you.
BILL MOYERS: But the Buddhists talk of letting go of the past, dying to the past, when you forgive, of letting loose of the sorrow that you have brought with you from the past. Is that what you’re talking about?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Yes. The thing is, of course that I don’t know that you yourself are able, by an act of will, as it were, to let go of the pain. The will part of it, where your will is, deliberately to say, ‘I am not going to let you victimize me and hold me in a position where I have an anger against you, a resentment, and I’m looking for the opportunity to pay back.’ I am saying. ‘I want to let go of that-that right, and begin to work for the possibility of restoring the relationship.
BILL MOYERS: Do I have to do anything – the person being forgiven?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: For your own sake, the only way you can appropriate forgiveness is by confessing. That opens you to the possibility of being able to receive it. It’s like, it’s like opening up a window. You see forgiveness can be likened to the fresh air that is outside or the sunlight that is outside and you have a room and the windows are closed and the curtains are drawn. The wind is still out there, my forgiveness is still available to you, but it won’t find access until you open the window and the light streams in. You draw the curtains apart and the fresh air comes in. You by your contrition and confession, say I am sorry, forgive me, open and my forgiveness enters your being.
BILL MOYERS: We’re talking here about genocide, torture. Are genocide and torture forgivable?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: As a Christian, you have to say, ‘Are there things that are unforgivable?’ I’m afraid we follow a lord and master who at the point when they are crucifying him in the most painful way can say, ‘Pray for their forgiveness.’ And we follow the one who says, ‘Forgive one another as God and Christ forgave you.’ That is for us the paradigm. We may not always reach to that ideal, but that is the standard.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for the Journal. See you next week. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 23, 2015.