A family struggles to understand why Georgia prisoner Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed, even though the case against him has fallen apart
Flickr/The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty
"How does it work?" my eight-year-old asked last Saturday morning . "Will he just stand there and have to -- let them kill him?"
She was asking me about Troy Davis, a man on Georgia's death row who is slated to be executed on September 21.
There's been much talk about Davis in our house, so the night before, I'd tried to explain: Found guilty of killing a police officer, Davis was sentenced to death in 1991, but in the meantime, the case against him has fallen apart.
Seven out of the nine people who said it was him have "recanted" or changed their testimony, I told my daughter and her older brother, explaining what that meant. "What about the other two?" my son asked.
Death row inmate Troy Davis / Reuters
Well, I don't know about one of them, I said, but the other -- Sylvester "Redd" Coles, the first person to accuse Davis -- might have actually been the shooter. Since Davis's conviction, several people have testified that he lied about Davis to protect himself. And boasted about getting away with it.
To make things worse, I said, they don't have any physical evidence against Davis either, nothing you can see or touch. What little physical evidence the State of Georgia once had it has since withdrawn -- new forensics technologies have revealed grievous error, and the assumptions of the past were shown to be wrong.
I explained a little about the appeals process, but also that once you're found guilty of something, it's very hard to get that changed. Try as I might, I couldn't reasonably explain to my children why the judge who heard new testimony at a 2010 hearing rejected that testimony -- I don't understand, I said, why he felt the witnesses must have been trustworthy in 1991, but that they no longer were 19 years later.
Especially, I said, because most of them said they'd been pressured by the police to blame Davis.
I turned to my 12-year-old boy, and explained that one witness was 16 years old at the time. Darrell "D.D." Collins now says he was alone in a room with five police officers -- no parent, no lawyer, just the police who were anxious and angry and looking for a suspect -- and they just kept yelling at him to say that it was Troy, threatening that he would go to jail if he didn't. So he finally did.
Imagine if that were you, I said to my boy. Imagine how frightened you would be.
There's one chance left, I said: Clemency. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles might decide that the case against Davis is simply too weak to support a death penalty, and they will commute his sentence.
We were at dinner at the time, so the conversation continued and meandered. Their dad explained why we oppose the death penalty generally ("me too," said the 8-year-old, "we shouldn't kill anybody"). Both kids said that they wished they could do something to help.
I admit I teared up at this point. I explained that this can't be their job right now, that fighting the death penalty has to be on the grownups. And that no matter how hard we try, we won't be able to get the world fixed by the time they grow up -- they'll be able to continue the work. That in the meantime, the fact of them in my life gives me the kind of joy and rest I need to be able to be available to people who need help.
Dinner ended and bedtime came. We read Harry Potter, snuggles were given and received. The night passed.
The next morning, the first words out of my daughter's mouth, sitting up in her bed, were about Troy Davis.
"You know how we were talking about Troy last night? How does that work?"
"I'm sorry," I had to say, "how does what work?"
"Well, how do they kill him? Will he just stand there and have to -- let them kill him?"
There are moments in parenting when not telling the whole truth is very important. I did not say "They will wheel Troy into a tiled room. They will strap him to a gurney. They will inject him with a series of drugs that will kill him in stages, despite the fact that there is real evidence that these drugs do not always work as smoothly as we are told. Despite the fact that he may suffer as he dies, they will strap him down, and people will watch, and they will inject him, and Troy Davis will die, even though he is almost certainly innocent."
Instead, I swallowed hard and thought about our cat, the one we put to sleep a couple years back, the one whose last living memory was of being in my arms. I said "Oh no, honey, they'll give him drugs like we gave Chauncey. The first one will make him sleep, and the next one will stop his heart. Do you remember how Chauncey died, quietly in my arms?"
I lied. I could not tell my daughter the truth. She's in third grade, and if she didn't have the mother she has, she wouldn't even be thinking about such awful things. I let her believe that it will be peaceful for Davis, that it will be like being held in someone's arms and falling asleep.
"But I still wish I could help," she said.
I thought hard, and suggested she write him a letter. She liked that idea: "If they were about to kill me and an 8-year-old girl wrote to me to tell me she believed me, that would help me feel better."
The day, then the weekend, passed and I thought -- I suppose I hoped -- that she'd forgotten. It's like I don't know my own daughter, though, because she is nothing if not a dog with a bone.
"Oh!" she suddenly said this morning. "I still have to write to Troy! And I better do it soon, because it has to be before the 21st."
And if the clemency bid fails, and Troy Davis is executed next week, I will tell her (and I will pray that it is so) that her message and all the other messages and all the well wishes of all the tens-of-thousands of people who have supported him these many long years were in his heart as authorities gave him those drugs -- that as his life ended, Troy Davis at the very least knew he was being held by tens-of-thousands of loving hands.
This wasn’t terribly surprising. When Streep was asked, last year, in the course of promoting her extremely feminist film Suffragette, whether she is herself a feminist, the actor replied that, no, she isn’t. Instead: “I am a humanist,” she said. “I am for nice, easy balance.”
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Across China, where new developments are keeping pace with the rapidly growing economy, reports continue to surface so-called "nail houses."
Across China, where new developments are keeping pace with the rapidly growing economy, reports continue to surface of so-called "nail houses." These properties, standing alone amid the ruins of other buildings, belong to owners who have stood their ground and resisted demolition. Defiant property owners say the compensation being offered is too low. Some of them have remained in their homes for years as their court cases drag on and new construction continues all around them. A few homeowners have won their fights, but most have lost. Meanwhile, these nail houses have become powerful symbols of resistance against the world's fastest-growing major economy.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
Ben Stiller’s follow-up to his own comedy classic is a downright bummer, no matter how many celebrity cameos it tries to cram in.
You don’t need to go to the theater to get the full experience of Zoolander 2. Simply get your hands on a copy of the original, watch it, and then yell a bunch of unfunny topical lines every time somebody tells a joke. That’s how it feels to watch Ben Stiller’s sequel to his 2001 spoof of the fashion industry: Zoolander 2 takes pains to reference every successful gag you remember from the original, and then embellish them in painful—often offensive, almost always outdated—fashion. It’s a film that has no real reason to exist, and it spends its entire running time reaffirming that fact.
The original Zoolander, to be fair, had no business being as funny as it was—it made fun of an industry that already seems to exist in a constant state of self-parody, and much of its humor relied on simple malapropisms and sight gags. But it was hilarious anyway as a candid snapshot of the fizzling-out of ’90s culture. Like almost any zeitgeist comedy, it belonged to a particular moment—and boy, should it have stayed there. With Zoolander 2, Stiller (who directed, co-wrote, and stars) tries to recapture the magic of 2001 by referencing its past glories with increasing desperation, perhaps to avoid the fact that he has nothing new to say about the fashion industry or celebrity culture 15 years laters.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Most people know how to help someone with a cut or a scrape. But what about a panic attack?
Here’s a thought experiment: You’re walking down the street with a friend when your companion falls and gashes her leg on the concrete. It’s bleeding; she’s in pain. It’s clear she’s going to need stitches. What do you do?
This one isn’t exactly a head-scratcher. You'd probably attempt to offer some sort of first-aid assistance until the bleeding stopped, or until she could get to medical help. Maybe you happen to have a Band-Aid on you, or a tissue to help her clean the wound, or a water bottle she can use to rinse it off. Maybe you pick her up and help her hobble towards transportation, or take her where she needs to go.
Here’s a harder one: What if, instead of an injured leg, that same friend has a panic attack?
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.
How teachers and parents can identify and cultivate children who think creatively and unconventionally
In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, the writer, Wharton professor, and erstwhile magician Adam Grant explores the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers. Through stories of business “originals” such as the Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, and the Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal, he explains how unorthodox thinking can result in unprecedented success or—if shaped by groupthink or myopic vision—miserable failure.
Grant is a gifted educator himself, and, as Wharton’s top rated teacher for the past four years, knows a little something about identifying and cultivating original thinking in his students. I asked Grant about the role teachers play in educating original children, and how teachers and parents alike can protect what’s special in these original children—traits that have the potential to disrupt lesson plans today, but, if nurtured and protected, may just change the world tomorrow. Below is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.