The Prison Business
Death row in the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Center, in North Las Vegas, has only one inmate when I visit: Priscilla Ford, a seventy-five-year-old black woman found guilty of having deliberately run over twenty-nine pedestrians twenty-four years ago in Reno, killing seven, as she drove her Lincoln at full speed.
Be careful, the state's director of prisons told me. She is sick. Very sick. Emphysema. Can't get up or talk to you.
But in fact, that's not how it is. She is tired, of course. Short of breath. Wearing a dirty jogging suit. Shaggy gray hair, with a bald spot at the back of her skull. She is standing up, pretty straight. Welcomes me gravely into her tiny cell, plastered with photos of Prince William, Lady Di, President Bush, Pope John Paul II, Mel Gibson. A book on children's education near her bed. The Da Vinci Code and a Bible on a shelf. A television set. A sign that says God First. Family photos she doesn't appear in, except by means of a rough and clumsy paste-up.
"I hope my girlfriends didn't scare you too much," she begins, alluding to the hundred or so women, almost all of them black, in the "segregation" section you need to go through to get to her cell—genuine raging beasts, all dressed in the same brightly colored jumpers, and shouting behind their bars that they haven't done anything, that they can't bear it anymore, that they want to be allowed to exercise, that they screw visitors, that I should go to hell.
Then, shaken by strange bursts of laughter, a hiccup of sorts, that double her over every time, cut off her breath, and make me think that the expert psychiatric opinion given at her trial that she was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia wasn't completely without foundation, Priscilla continues, "I was wrong to confess. I didn't do anything. I was charged because I had a terrible lawyer who couldn't convince the jury that I'm the reincarnation of Christ himself. The real guilty one, here she is [she shows me a photo pinned upside down, all by itself on a gold-painted cork board]: she's the real guilty one. She's my sister. She's still on the run, and that's why there are still crimes being committed in Reno."
And then, finally, in response to my questions about the ordeal it must be to wake up every morning for twenty years and tell yourself that this could be the last day, she makes a remark whose sudden brilliance settles in three sentences the debate on the merits of the network of private prisons that this penitentiary had belonged to since its creation, as against the "normal" public system that it has just joined in the past few days, after a controversy that inflamed passions throughout the state: "For me, there's a before and an after. Before, I was living like a dog, no one cared about me, but the advantage was that they no longer thought about executing me. Today the food is better, the cell is cleaner, but I think they're going to come looking for me …"
In a few words she expressed the core idea.
Priscilla Ford is cut off from everything, and, in the twenty years since she was condemned, has received almost no visits.
But she has summarized one of the crucial issues that divide the country today, about which the Nobel Prize—winning economist Joseph Stiglitz talked with me at length in New York—she is expressing the advantages and inconveniences of the privatization of American prisons as I had been able to glimpse them myself, in a visit that preceded my meeting with her.
The positive side: An apathy in the behavior of the prison guards, which I imagine is an offspring of this culture of private enterprise that was the rule until last month. A certain casualness, almost freedom, in the way the prisoners (except, of course, the ones in the segregation sector) walk around in the hallways, talking, pausing if they want, and in the way they are dressed. Mini stereo systems in some cells, and sometimes television sets; beauty parlors with posters of different hairstyles, just as in provincial hair salons; even the color on the walls of the common rooms—pink or mauve or blue—whose affected cheerfulness could be that of a kindergarten. Behind all this you can imagine the shareholders of Corrections Corporation of America, which had run the prison, coolly calculating that feeding and entertaining the human animal, loosening the bit a little, offering a less sinister environment than the punitive cells of a state prison, is an affordable way—less costly, at any rate, than armies of prison guards—to keep a prisoner quiet and tame.
The negative side: The abandonment, when the state resigns and the law of profit reigns, of any kind of reform project. These outcast men—or in this case women—whom the body politic, and thus the community of citizens, may forget to punish, but with whom, at the same time, they have utterly lost contact. This is the height of abandonment, the most absolute dereliction. Bodies are fed but morally beaten; souls are suspended and literally lost in the bright shadows of these sweetish dungeons. Snuffing of human light; residual subhumanity; fundamentally, the completion of the gesture of exclusion and elimination that began at Rikers Island, that I sensed yet again at Alcatraz, but that finds here, in this withdrawal of public authority, in this programmed indifference of the community to its delinquents and monsters, probably its most complete form.
Between the plague and cholera it's never easy to choose. And it's clear that when we contemplate the horror of Priscilla Ford's case, when we're faced with this hopeless scandal—the fact that thirty-eight states, including Nevada, maintain the death penalty—all other debates over the American prison system seem almost frivolous. Still, there are, at times, degrees of evil. And I fear that with this debate about privatization, with the very existence of prisons subject only to the logic of money, we have taken one more decisive step on the path to civilized barbarism.
"The Biggest Pimp of All" (January 1977)
The oldest profession predates history, and laws designed to subdue it have rarely proved effective. By Elizabeth and James Vorenberg
For brothels you have to leave Las Vegas and Clark County. You have to head west, toward Death Valley. Leave Blue Diamond and its mines on your right. Go to Pahrump. Pass Pahrump's castle-shaped Kingdom Gentlemen's Club and Madam Butterfly's Bath and Massage Parlor. Leave the town. Get lost. Come back. Ask your way from a bunch of kids playing in front of a billboard that in the middle of the desert is advertising an edition of the Bible. Ask your way again farther on, opposite the Green Valley Grocery, from a group of mothers stocking up on Coca-Cola and not the least bit surprised at having to provide a stranger with directions to the nearest brothel. Take a left. Pass a bar that seems to cater to war veterans, a motel, an antique shop, all perched on loose gravel. Look for the "guns and supplies" store the moms happened to mention. Then the South Valley Baptist Church, near a horse pen. Emerging from a steep slope, a rocky moonscape bleached by the sun, arrive at a crossroads where I'd swear no one ever passes but where a man is standing, holding a sign he has scribbled: Vietnam vet, no work, no food, God bless! With his long gray hair, his emaciated face, his dusty T-shirt, he has the eerie, almost alien look of a survivor from another world that poor and homeless people in these youth-elixir-drugged lands of California and Nevada end up acquiring. And finally, about 500 feet farther on, in the middle of nowhere but firmly within Nye County (which of all the counties in Nevada that tolerate prostitution is the closest to Las Vegas), you come upon a pink-and-blue kiosk marked Tourist Information, Shirts, Hats, Souvenirs; a billboard boasting the inevitable World Famous Historic Brothel; and then—as incongruous as the Eiffel Tower in the middle of a savannah—a house like Snow White's divided into a saloon on the right, with the sign Longhorn Bar, and a bizarre façade on the left, decorated above with windows in pastel colors and at ground level with three garishly painted murals. The murals reproduce lifelike scenes supposedly taking place on this very site: a John Wayne double pushing open in a manly way the door that I myself am about to push; another man leaning imposingly on the counter of the bar I'm about to enter; and a cowgirl, daydreaming, very much an icon of the Eternal Great West, posing on a fence identical to the one I'm passing through.
Walk through the Longhorn Bar, where a sign informs you that Ladies are always welcome.
Pause in front of a TV that's showcasing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, whose message is that whores are good little girls too.
Express surprise to the manager that no one's here, and get told that the bar, like the brothel, has its peak hours later on, when customers arrive from Las Vegas.
Finally, step into the brothel itself, the Chicken Ranch—thus named because during the nineteenth century, at its original location in Texas, the neighboring ranchers paid with chickens. It has a concealed door, falsely mysterious, imitation of a hotel hallway, phantom of the "lush" Duk Duk Ranch where Quilty takes Lolita and has her perform "filthy, fancy" deeds; through the door is a seedy lounge, upholstered in burgundy velvet, where a wheezing electric system is triggered whenever a client enters, and a theater curtain is raised, revealing a mirrored wall.
There are four of them—not as young as the lap dancers I saw in Vegas, not as sexy. A touch of the country girl, with permed hair, rosy rustic features, flesh squeezed into corsets you can make out beneath the flounced dresses. One after another they curtsy, pull in their stomachs, wriggle, and smile.
Of the four I choose the least pathetic one. Follow her to the end of another hallway to a bedroom hung with makeshift drapes, which she proudly tells me is decorated "like a harem."
Notice surprise in her eyes, a glint of fleeting fear, and then indifference when she understands that I have come not for that but for a magazine, Tocqueville, sex in America, and so forth.
And still, in the meantime, store up impressions and information.
Next to the bed is a message board like the temperature charts in hospital rooms, where every other week the results of venereal-disease and AIDS tests are written. The brothel is a sanitary place.
On the bedside table, conspicuously displayed, a choice of condoms, the use of which is required at all levels of service, down to and including, she gravely explains, a mere striptease. The brothel is a place of safe sex.
A bit lower down, just at the head of the bed and of the client, a statuette of the Statue of Liberty, in homage to the dear, suffering America honored here by screwing, as it is honored elsewhere by intelligence, business, arts, weapons. Whores are first and foremost American patriots.
And then, finally, her catalogue of services and prices, which she announces to me with the same pride showed by the matchmaker in the Mall of America when she displayed her menu of weddings. I suddenly remember that in the lounge there is an ATM, along with brochures certifying that credit-card payments are accepted. I think of the business cards with mail and Internet addresses, the maps, the cards for twenty-four-hour-a-day limousine service next to a box of mints. I remember, to the left of the entrance gate and its few steps, the ramp designed for handicapped access. Brothel or no brothel, business is business.
Protestant ethic and price list for love.
New sexual order, tests, performances.
Another face of the same puritanism and its obscene nether side.
"Genesis vs. Geology" (September 1982)
The claim that creationism is a science rests above all on the plausibility of the biblical flood. By Stephen Jay Gould
"There are two theories," the helicopter pilot shouts when I ask him about the geological formation of the formidable Grand Canyon, which we're beginning to glimpse after an hour of flight over a landscape of deserts and dormant volcanoes, dried-up lakes and the Hoover Dam, on Lake Mead.
"There are two theories," he repeats, louder, to overcome the noise of the helicopter's rotors and engine. One claims it emerged little by little, during millions or even billions of years, as it became eroded. And the other claims that all this, all these wonders, these monuments as magnificent as the temples of Angkor Wat, these red and pink rocks you see below you, that formation, on your left, that looks like a Roman temple, this other one, here, look, right here, that looks like a ruined fortress—that all this can't be the result of chance, that it needed an artist, and that this artist is God.
And then, a few minutes later, when we're a little higher than the rim itself, and above the dizzying chasm: "And there are two theories here, too." One says it's the Colorado River that carved the rift over the course of millennia. The other says no, that's impossible: such a ravine, such a colossal gorge, such a clear-cut, perfect canyon, where geologists have found so many amazingly preserved fossils, this scar that runs in one stroke without deviating for 300 miles—all this could only have been produced all at once. Maybe not in one day, but in a year, maybe two, after a cataclysm like the flood in the Bible.
The pilot isn't yet thirty. He is modern. Thin and bright. With his Ray-Bans, his longish hair, his handsome young face and ruddy complexion, he doesn't bear much resemblance to the people I saw at Willow Creek. And soon, when we return to Vegas, he'll confess that he's a Democrat, that he's getting ready to vote for John Kerry, and that he's a fan of "R&B" and "dance-floor techno-pop." But he has just drawn an exact sketch of this phenomenon called creationism, whose importance to the new American conservative thought, regardless of political party, is one of the strangest, most extravagant things ever offered for a foreign traveler to observe.
There was a time when creationists were pure ideologues, content to take up the old arguments of Darwin's contemporaries: How, if man is descended from an animal, is it possible to endow him with a soul and to bestow upon that soul the immortality postulated by different religions? This was the time, 1925, of the famous "monkey trial," when a court in Tennessee found a high school teacher guilty of daring to teach that man and monkey were genetic cousins. It was the era, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, when a number of American states instituted amendments forbidding the teaching of Darwinism in the schools. It was the time, in short, of the battle between faith and science—and the latter was often ordered to give in to the former.
Today the strategy has been refined. It has even, upon close inspection, been reversed. For instead of opposing science; instead of making a stand against the scientific spirit and its methods; instead, in short, of contrasting a soulless science with the eternal human soul and natural theology, the creationist camp has had the clever idea of fitting itself into the adversary's mold, borrowing science's procedures and effects, and also starting to speak in the name of science. That's the story of the scholar Jonathan Wells, recipient of a Ph.D. from Yale and then from Berkeley, who under the influence of the Moonies developed a teleology of the history of species demonstrating that their succession corresponds to an "intelligent design." That's the story of the Moonies in general, who thirty years ago, with the support of the Nobel Prize winner and spiritualist John Eccles, established a series of International Conferences for the Unity of the Sciences, one object of which was to undermine the theoretical foundations of Darwinism. Today an array of organizations use a vast arsenal of diplomas, validations, scholarly communications, and scientific commissions for the purpose of their crusade, worthy of a great modern scientific institution. In seemingly scholarly journals a plethora of paleontologists and geologists—or people who claim to be such—are turning out articles aiming to call into question the theory of the primeval soup, to recalculate the age of Earth and the solar system, to discover the remains of Noah's ark, to date with carbon-14 the fossil-bearing layers, or to discover the "actual date" of the Flood. In the end it's none other than our young pilot who, having returned to the Vegas heliport, explains, with the same self-assurance, that there are two theories, too, about the origin of Earth …
This neo-creationism no longer presses to exclude Darwinism from textbooks and schools altogether. It no longer tries to dismiss it in the name of a divine knowledge that is imposed on the knowledge of scholars with the authority of fanaticism or revealed truth.
On the contrary, it accepts Darwinism, or in any case pretends to accept it—but only while asserting the right, the mere right, to oppose its "hypotheses" with the contrary hypotheses, placed on the same level and equal in worth, of "scientific creationism." The invention of scientific creationism—this elevation to the rank of "science" of what is patently superstition and imposture—can only be called inspired.
There are two theories, and you have a choice: that's the formula of an enlightened obscurantism; that's the principle of revisionism with a liberal and tolerant face; that's the act of faith of a dogmatism reconciled with freedom of speech and thought; that's the subtlest, most underhanded, most cunning, and at bottom most dangerous ideological maneuver of the American right in years.
About the significance of religion in American demo- cratic life; about the peculiarity of systematically placing these election campaigns, these debates, these conventions, under the blessing of God Almighty; about the mystery of a people who are at once the most materialistic and the most spiritual, the "greediest" in Jim Harrison's view and the most intensely religious; about the paradox of a taste for freedom that, far from having been wrested from the murky shadows of faith, as in Europe, is, on the contrary, right in step with it, freedom feeding on faith, faith supporting itself on freedom, and so on ad infinitum—about all this, I don't think the traveler today can have anything to add to the miraculously prophetic pages of the second volume of Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
Salt Lake City, though, is an exception.
Case in point: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church, which has its spiritual center here, and which, I must confess, looks like nothing I've ever seen before.
I'm not talking about Salt Lake City itself, this surreal and artificial place, orthogonal and rigid, built in the nineteenth century in the middle of the desert by a Mormon colony fleeing persecution.
I'm not talking, this Sunday morning, as I visit the Tabernacle and then the Mormon temple in Temple Square, about this uneasy mixture of the prophetic and the mundane, the intensity of fervor and the triviality of rites, which after all is not so different from what I witnessed at Willow Creek.
I'm not talking about the sectarian obsession—the Golden Section, or the five-branched cross, engraved on the temple walls, the rationalized occultism, the spiritualist puritanism (and, at its most extreme, the apocalyptic fantasies compelling believers to stock freezers with loads of provisions in expectation of the Last Day); this is not so exceptional, and in any case the Mormon Church maintains she has put much of this behind.
I'm not even thinking of the living prophet—yes, "living prophet"—which is what in Salt Lake City they call the spiritual head of the community, the man who rules over the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as well as the millions of Mormons in Utah and throughout the world. I'm not even thinking, then, of my astonishment when, at the noontime service, in what looks like a luxurious hotel lobby (velvets, gilding, chandeliers, brocades) transformed into a place of worship—another sign of the same confusion of the profane with the sacred—I was finally shown the prophet; and instead of the holy man I was expecting, instead of a dignified heir to Joseph Smith, the church's founder, whom I had imagined as an apostolic figure come to re-establish the plenitude of the Gospel on earth, I discovered a little ninety-four-year-old man, cautious and dapper, dressed in a double-breasted navy-blue suit with gold buttons, closer to a Cinzano drinker than to a WASP Dalai Lama.
No. The real story here is at 35 North West Temple Street—the Family History Library.
The genuine interest, in my eyes, of this Mormon Church is a procedure unique in history, not just among American churches but among all churches, which consists in traveling all over the world in order to assemble and store up the names of human beings from throughout the centuries.
"We take everything," the librarian tells me. Everything. Birth certificates. Marriage and death certificates. Newspapers. Old letters. Photos. Civil and parish registers. Military papers. Ancestral diagrams. Family trees. Censuses. Land registries. Immigration and emigration lists. Court reports. We have emissaries who travel the planet. We have "microfilm teams" who go sign deals and collect material. The result is a unique data bank. It's a supply of billions of names entered in our International Genealogical Index and preserved here in the library as well as, for security purposes, in a place twenty-five miles southeast of the city, in the heart of Granite Mountain, in fortified rooms hollowed out of the mountainside, guaranteed earthquake-proof. Someday the dead from every era will be entered into the computer. Someday a history of humanity will be indexed and available for any living person who wants it. Come look. You'll understand.
He takes me to the second floor, to a room where a few dozen men and women, of every age and condition, are typing away on individual computers.
"There you are. This belongs to everyone." These resources have no other purpose than to be put back into the hands of their legitimate owners, the people. They can do one of two things with them: If they're Mormon and if they believe in the definitive sanctity of family relations, for this life and the next, they can tighten the link with their ancestors and even, in some cases, if they think ancestors might have died without having had the occasion or the time to accept the tenets of Mormonism, they can offer them a remedial session and baptize them by proxy. Or if they're not Mormon, if they don't believe in baptizing the dead, if this blessing of the dead isn't part of their theology, they still have the possibility, so relevant in a world where more and more people are losing track of their roots, of knowing where they come from, who made them, and who they are. "Would you like to try?" he asked.
The experiment for me isn't that conclusive. In vain do I type, and retype, the names of the few ancestors I can recall; it must be that my family background lies in one of those terrae incognitae yet to yield to Mormon inspection, since the computer remains exasperatingly silent.
But I glance at the faces around me. I look at these people, dreamy or puzzled, as if drugged, sometimes the hint of a smile on their lips, journeying through the mysteries of their own past. And I hesitate between two sentiments. One is a certain respect owed to this relentless interest in one's ancestors, this homage made to the dead, this wish to be, as Baudelaire writes, the living tomb of one's forefathers. But then there's also the idea that these Mormons are peculiarly cunning. In the struggle of all against all that the history of religions has been, and in this other battle for power that I see American churches waging today, the Mormons have found the absolute weapon. How can you possibly fight a church that reigns not just over the living but also over the dead? Who can compete with people who, not content with taking possession of bodies and souls, place the memory of the world under seal?
Twenty thousand victims of the Shoah have been baptized, a non-Mormon in Salt Lake confides, by the companions of the living prophet … Some court proceedings have been started by institutions or churches that, after all is said and done, regret having lost their own … Yes, it's open war!
Tracy is a bartender in a hotel restaurant in Grand Junction, Colorado, just over the Utah border, where we've stopped for the night.
She's about forty, looks like a fine, solid, happy American, trouble-free, and keeps insisting, "My life is my customers. I'm happy when they're happy."
Except when you dig down a little; when you ask her, after the last customer has left, about her work, her family, her life; when you ask her what she's doing here in this godforsaken hole, with her automatic smiles, her "Did you enjoy your meal?" or "Are you still working on it?," you discover a far less cheerful story.
A father who worked in the Utah coal mines. One day, when he was fifty, he couldn't stop coughing. He had a heart attack and never fully recovered.
A brother, also a miner, but a specialist in mine safety. "That's a cooler kind of work," she admits, "since there's the whole inspection aspect, which takes place mostly aboveground. But if a fire breaks out, or if there's an explosion, or if the roof caves in, he's the one who has to go down to bring back his men, dead or alive. Last time there were eighty dead. He had to walk through all the corpses, and we were so afraid he wouldn't come back up!"
Three other brothers, also miners. But since the coal mines are dying out, they had to move on to soda-ash mining. "And that," she goes on, "is worse. My father says you can't call it worse. But I think you can. I've seen them, my brothers, in Wyoming and Utah, working in all the soda-ash mines of the Green River basin. And I think it's much more exhausting than coal."
And then, finally, her husband, a miner too, the most damaged of the lot, with chronic depression, unable to work at all. They are divorced. But she remembers—in the beginning, when she was pregnant with their first child—those strikes that lasted for months, when no money was coming in. She remembers those mornings when she would awaken crying, unable to get up.
"What is the system in America when you're sick like your husband is? In France they think Americans don't have real social security. Tell me what it's like in this case."
Tracy reflects. Concentrates. And, adopting the expression of someone who is about to embark on a long, complex explanation, borrows my notepad and begins to write down some numbers.
The husband. He benefits from the federal Medicare program for his medical needs, and also from the supplementary Medicaid program, which I understand is state-funded. He lives on $2,000 a month, or 60 percent of his last salary, which comes, in differing proportions that she's not aware of, from the federal government, the state government, and the mining company. He is also entitled to food stamps, but she doesn't know the amount. Finally, he has a subsidized apartment that he rents for about $250 instead of the $600 or $700 it's worth.
The father. Same thing for the medical care—same coverage by Medicare and Medicaid. Plus a retirement pension that in his case comes to 75 percent of his last salary. Why three quarters and not 60 percent? And why, in the same profession, two different systems? She doesn't know this either. Maybe because one is drawing money from the retirement system in Colorado and the other in Wyoming, and it changes from state to state. Or maybe because her father also subscribed to a private fund. She doesn't know.
The brothers. They're still working. During periods of unemployment they continue to be paid for fifteen or twenty weeks, but if these periods last longer than that, a private fund, provided by a church, has to take over. As to health and retirement benefits her brothers aren't so confident; they understand that the government system is on the edge of bankruptcy and that there are plans to demolish it, so they have signed up for savings accounts run by their mining company.
And what about her? Oh, her! She laughs … She never would have thought she'd ever get a divorce. So until these past few years she never worried about it. But oh, well. She's started saving a little. She also has private health insurance. Once, when she had a minor health problem, she was treated free by a hospital run by Methodists. The fact that there's an invalid and someone with a major illness in her family also makes her eligible for a special subsidy. And then she has a young son, and that entitles her to an allowance of $800 a month. Despite Clinton's reduction of Aid to Families With Dependent Children? Yes, that has nothing to do with it, since I'm speaking here, she says, of a program run by the state of Utah, where we live.
In short. I don't know how much I can generalize. And I am well aware that none of the people Tracy talked to me about are among the tens of millions who constitute America's poorest and most marginal—the truly problematic category.
But in the end there are three lessons that I would draw from her story.
First, an American social-welfare system exists; it may be threatened, but it does exist.
Second, the American social-welfare system is bewilderingly complex; despite what we say in Europe, it covers the main part of the active population, but it is complicated, varies from state to state, profession to profession, person to person.
Third, the main source of complexity, and thus of misunderstanding—the profound and almost philosophical reason for such a variety of situations—stems from the mistrust of the very idea of a government's centralizing all the tools of distribution in its own hands, as in France. It stems from the methodical "individualism" that, Tocqueville clearly showed, aims to leave with each individual the responsibility for his fate, or to associations chosen by each individual.
I read somewhere that social-welfare expenses per U.S. inhabitant are roughly equal to those in most European countries, including France. But this is true only if you add to the government share the contributions made by private institutions and private philanthropies.
Now, on the road again. Early in the morning, taking not the route that goes fastest from Grand Junction to Colorado Springs but, because we have a little time, the other one, Route 65, which goes through Grand Mesa and then Aspen.
Heat. Blinding, glorious light. Rust-colored ravines, scorched by the sun. Giant rocks, sprawling wherever they please, sometimes crumbling with loose stones, sometimes reaching so high up that their jagged outlines seem to overlap one another in the sky—a barrier of rock, a Great Wall of China in the middle of America.
I remember the way we used to demonize the American Army when I was young. I remember the image we had of the My Lai kind of GI—all the makings of a brute and a fascist. And I remember the fever with which a few months ago Europeans in general and the French in particular seized on Seymour Hersh's investigations revealing the despicable crimes committed in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib.
I know, of course, that in all countries in the world, and necessarily in America as well, an army has contradictory faces.
And I'm sure that the United States Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, which trains officers for one branch of the armed services, is not the ideal observation post from which to judge the recent evolution of the military as a whole.
But when you come down to it …
These boys with chubby, sensible faces …
This girl from St. Louis, Roslyn Schulte, long brown hair pulled back in a bun, beautiful, gentle, deep gaze, who went to one of the best high schools in the country …
This other cadet, who doesn't know the name Clausewitz but who has over his bedside table a copied-out quotation from Rabbi Harold Kushner on the meaning of life, death, suffering …
This table at lunchtime where eight cadets out of twelve confess, in the heat of a surprisingly free debate, that they weren't in favor of the war in Iraq, because, according to them, the chances of a "police option" weren't fully explored.
This class, finally, which I am allowed to observe, where the questions under consideration—the weighty and highly strategic problems that will be debated for an hour by a dozen future knightlings of the sky, as they all sit calmly behind desks arranged in a semicircle—are these: First, "How many times in the morning do you push the snooze button on your alarm clock? In what circumstances? Why? And how can you get rid of this annoying habit?" and second, "How can you stop this other pathological behavior, much more serious for a future pilot and officer—the smoking habit? Do you think the right method is to use chewing gum? To slip the money you've saved from every unbought pack into a piggy bank and see how much you end up with after a certain period of time? If you're married, or dating, should you get a gentle massage every time you don't smoke? Or should you be punished if you smoke, and be made to eat your cigarette?"
Why did you enlist? I ask them. Why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, does one decide to become an Air Force officer?
Some (whose decisions, they tell me, date from the shock of 9/11): To defend my country.
Others (who, obviously, are aware of all the major historical debates over whether the United States has the right or not to meddle in the affairs of other nations): To defend the Constitution.
Still others (supporters of a neo-conservative foreign policy—which is to say, plainly, a more active, more aggressive foreign policy): Beyond even our own Constitution, to defend the values of freedom on which it is based, and to defend them everywhere, yes, everywhere, wherever they're scorned.
And last is Roslyn Schulte, from St. Louis: "Do you really want to know what brought me here? I wanted to fly the most exciting airplanes—the small, fast jets they only fly in the military. I was thinking of flying; I was thinking of fun."
I don't meet a single one, in fact, who mentions the greatness of the military profession as such.
Nor do I meet anyone who really seems to take into account the increased risk of death today, given the Iraq War, inherent in the simple fact of choosing a military career.
The response of Brigadier General Johnny Weida, the commandant of cadets at the academy, is all the more clear-cut: very little military background in his family; not the least hint of fascination with war or the Army; his first motivation was not planes but sports. What? He guffaws. Yes, he did say "sports." It was 1974; he was twenty; he had a friend who told him that the Air Force Academy was a great place to develop one's athletic skills. The vocation, of course, followed; it came to him, as it often does to others, at the controls of his first F16s; but in the beginning that was it. In the beginning it was primarily "Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do"—the motto of the Air Force as well as the values of sport.
I repeat that this may be an exceptional case.
And I'll take care not to judge the broader mentality of the U.S. military (or, above all, of those backup troops who dishonored themselves at Abu Ghraib) on the basis of this academy where they train officers who make it a point of honor not to be "mere" soldiers.
But I should confess that I return to my hotel somewhat confused.
And I decide, this very evening, that from now on I will think twice before allowing myself to talk glibly, like too many of my fellow citizens, about the imperial American military—or, beyond the military, about the imperial calling of the country itself.
"Involuntary Romans," Paul Morand said.
"Incompetent imperialism," added the British historian Niall Ferguson, whose thesis is that the United States doesn't have, and never did have, sufficient military will for its ambitions.
"Incoherent empire," Michael Mann, on the other end of the ideological spectrum, asserts, denouncing the "untidy militarism" of a country that never knew, and knows increasingly less, how to control the territories it has conquered.
And once again, Tocqueville long ago lent us a key to the riddle when he wrote that Americans have even less inclination for war than for politics.
In Sun City, Arizona, the rule is simple. Implacable. No home without at least one resident above fifty-five. Children and teenagers admitted only to visit. A city of the old. A private city, reserved for retired people, cut off from the rest of the world. In this falsely urban space with perfectly straight, almost deserted streets, where once in a while a few granddads in golf carts pass by, an optimist will see an oasis of prosperity in a society plagued by crisis, a bourgeois utopia dreamed up by some grand developer. In this he'll recognize a strange variation, but a variation all the same, on the good old "pastoralism"—inherited from eighteenth-century English landscape architecture—that played such a large role in the formation of American ideology. He'll perceive in it a reunion—not at all dishonorable in itself—of the spirit of Virgil and that of the Enlightenment. A reunion of back-to-nature dreams, dating from the first American colonists, with the residential progressivism that I discovered in Lakewood, near Los Angeles, which had already shown me what sort of landscape such a mixture can give rise to, and what kind of egalitarian pioneer philosophy it stems from. Emerson's self-reliance on a backdrop of ghettoized old age. Thoreau's Walden in an imaginary version of a fortress under siege. In planned cities of this kind, in citadels emerging in the middle of nowhere (in this case in the desert), perhaps our optimist will even discern a final manifestation, in this twenty-first century, of that pioneering spirit, that capacity to shape oneself "by solemn and mutual consent" into a "body politic," that Tocqueville writes of in the opening pages of Democracy in America (where, quoting Nathaniel Morton, he discusses the creation of Plymouth and the first New England colonies, and describes them as the very essence of the democratic aim).
And I confess, as an aside, that I didn't find the little dance organized by a few of these senior-citizen settlers at the Westerners Square Dance Club, in Sun City West, completely ridiculous. I confess to finding a certain charm in the spectacle of fifteen or twenty old ladies, dressed like Scarlett O'Hara in ruffled skirts and other alluring apparel, dancing to the point of breathlessness, whirling with Rhett Butlers the youngest of whom is eighty years old. The problem, obviously, is the rest. Everything else. The problem is all the black people you can't see here, and the Hispanics who, I am told, are here, but whose presence I am not aware of either. Poor people in general, a huge population left out of this suburban dream. The problem, in fact, is the feeling of having reached, with this tribe of the old, the very last stage of a process of social segregation a few premises of which I was able to observe in Los Angeles, and which, when all is said and done, manages neither to keep the poor in their ghettos nor to banish them to the city's outskirts. The problem, in short, is that all this implies a profound break with the very tradition of civic-mindedness and civility—I won't even say of compassion—that was responsible, and continues to be responsible, for this country's greatness. And this experiment in privatizing a public space at the expense of a community cannot fail to create a terrible precedent. Sun City seems like a little satellite freed from the laws of social and national gravity, from the "nation state," the "station," scorned by Emerson. And if we accept this, I say to one of my Scarletts, if we ratify the principle of this gilded ghetto, based on membership in a certain age and income bracket, then by what right can we tomorrow prevent the development of cities forbidden to the old? Or to gay men and women? Or to Jews? In whose name can we resist the definitive Balkanization of American space that could well result? But that's completely different, my indignant square dancer exclaims. You can't compare such horrific plans to an organization whose sole aim is to make life easier for old people who were suffocating in the big cities.
Maybe. I am in fact well aware of the little arrangements for everyday life in such old-age communities: electrical sockets that are higher up, so you don't have to bend down too far; carefully calibrated lighting, so as not to tire your eyes; golf courses; swimming pools heated both summer and winter; the alarm systems, connecting houses to hospitals, that save precious minutes in case of sickness, since delay is often fatal at this age; and so on. All that, obviously, is not trivial. But at the same time … this impression of dismal coldness … these artificial fires in the fireplaces, and these fake-looking lawns … this plastic-coated life … these dying people exuding health. This dead-end time, bereft of noteworthy events except dances and volunteer police rounds and, last but not least, the source of inexhaustible excitement: deaths and burials … I leave Sun City with a feeling of unease, no longer knowing if you come here to save or to damn yourself, to banish death or savor a foretaste of it. Back in Phoenix, I learn that Del Webb, the inventor of this frozen miracle, this paradise laden with all the attractions of purgatory, this kindergarten for senior citizens where life seems to have morphed into a pathology, learned his profession by building casinos, military installations, and internment camps for the Japanese.
I am having a fine time on a two-day trip with the press corps accompanying John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, but it almost ends badly.
The first night, for the Tempe—Las Vegas leg, right after Kerry's third debate with President Bush, they start by putting me in the second plane, the wrong one, the one without the candidate, the one carrying the luggage, the sound system, the staff.
Then, the next day, for the second leg—the one that, after a night in Vegas and a speech early the next morning to 10,000 AARP members, will take us to Des Moines, Iowa, for a big outdoor rally—I am invited to plane No. 1. But despite my entreaties, I still am not allowed to come near the candidate.
There are about fifteen of us from the press, actually. Twenty or so Secret Service agents; an equal number of PR assistants flitting from the main cabin to the front cabin, which has been fitted out for Kerry. The other reporters all get a one-on-one at some time or another. Depending on his degree of importance and that of his newspaper, each is entitled to have a press attaché either discreetly signal that his turn has come, or search him out in his seat to lead him by the hand into the holy of holies. But not I. Never. I am the only one, oddly, who upon asking whether the candidate is available yet is systematically answered with a vague and annoyed "In a little while." And each time I present myself, I get embarrassed but still negative replies. After a while they don't even bother to invent plausible excuses, and the automatic answer becomes "The candidate is sleeping … The candidate is still sleeping … It's still not the right time yet, because the candidate is tired and he's sleeping …"
"Don't you think that's a bit strange?" my seat neighbor, a journalist for a television network, who has been observing this treatment from the beginning without comment, asks me.
"Yes, I do. And I must say, I'm beginning to wonder …"
"And do you want an explanation—the real one, the one none of these bozos would ever dare tell you right out?"
"Yes, of course I do!"
Well, it's quite simple, he went on. It's like the story of the Hermès ties Kerry replaced with Vineyard Vines ties, made in the USA, out of fear that Bush's handlers would leap at the chance to support their "Kerry-as-agent-of-the-French" business. Or it's like the affair of the Evian bottle he had taken away in a hurry the other day from the Santa Monica hotel room where he was being interviewed by Matt Bai, of The New York Times Magazine. You're French. You're as French as a bottle of Evian or an Hermès tie. And their real fear, the real reason you're the only one of us not to have any contact with Kerry, is that a Frenchman might suddenly claim eight days before the election that the candidate picked him to confide his secrets to …
I am astonished, of course. Not just astonished—I feel slightly aggravated at the idea of this ludicrous misconception. And since, in any case, I've had enough by now, and thus have nothing to lose, I charge one last time toward the watchdog standing guard by the bar in the middle of the plane, and I say, "Listen, I get the picture. Let's make a deal: if I get to see the candidate and if he talks to me, I agree not to publish anything before the election or even till the summer of 2005, when one of my articles will appear. But I also swear that if you keep up your idiotic arrangement, and if your anti-French fixation keeps me from seeing him at all, then when the time comes you'll get a portrayal revealing that the ex-candidate, who could by then be the forty-fourth president of the United States, is a guy who spends most of his time … sleeping!"
Amused smile of the aide. Laughter, in front of us, from the group of young women around their friend Alexandra Kerry, the candidate's daughter, who have been following the scene.
So finally, just before our descent to Des Moines, I'm granted the little one-on-one. My impressions? A nice man, in shirtsleeves, joking with his staff, of a piece with the man I have seen looking for volunteers to toss a football around with him on the tarmac so he can stretch his legs. A European at heart. He is interested to hear that this whole story of Francophobia is just bullshit made up by the Washington press corps, and that in all the months I've been traveling through the heartland of America, I've never met any ordinary citizens who are angry with me for being French. A good candidate. A courageous activist, fully involved in the battle that's under way, absorbed in his role and his mission, inspired, passionate. A rationalist above all. A real rationalist, a man of the Enlightenment and of his word. Not doubting for a single instant that truth—even if it takes a while to come to light; even if the professional masters of deceit and disinformation appear to be gaining the upper hand—will always win out. That's why he took so long to react to the scurrilous campaign of the Swift Boat Veterans, which cast aspersions on his past as a Vietnam hero. That's also why he himself is always ill at ease with that terse style of argument, and why he prefers long, drawn-out explanations that are reasonable, articulate, sensible. Is he naive? Optimistic? Does he fatally underestimate the irrational factors that can decide an election? Just a few more days, and we'll find out.
"I'm looking for Paul Burka. Professor Paul Burka. He's teaching a class on Tocqueville that must have begun about twenty minutes ago, and I can't seem to find his classroom …" The man I'm talking to is a giant with a gray moustache, wearing jeans, his T-shirt damp with perspiration, taking the fresh air with a dozen or so young people sitting, like him, on wicker chairs in a sunny, comfortable lobby at the immense University of Texas at Austin. It is two days after the presidential election, which George Bush has decisively won. "Paul Burka?" he replies, rising a little in a sign of welcome. "That's me. I'm the one you're looking for. I'm Professor Paul Burka!" Then, gesturing at the group of young people sitting around him, similarly relaxed, carefree, without notes or notebooks, just a book of some kind on some of their knees: "And here's my class. Yes, that's right, we're in class now. We've been talking about the first lines of Chapter Eight of the first part of Volume One, on the federal Constitution, as we were waiting for you. But now it's your turn, since you're here. You know as much about it as I do—I'll give you the floor."
What? This is a class? This is a professor—this amiable colossus, without rostrum or lectern, who looks like he's having a drink with a few former students, and who explains briefly that he used to be a lawyer and is now the executive editor of Texas Monthly? Yes, a class. It's rather bewildering for someone who's accustomed to the rigidities and ceremonies of the French classroom, but it really is a class. And if I'm to believe Burka, it seems I've happened upon a freshman honors class—in other words, unusually bright students who began the year with Thucydides, continued it with Ibsen, went on to Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, and are now immersed in Tocqueville's Democracy in America. "What do you know about this book?" I ask them, having pulled my chair into a narrow band of shadow against a wall between two bay windows. "I'll tell you what I think about it. But you go first. What does it mean to you? What does it tell you about your country, your time?" The "tyranny of the majority," one student tells me, tracking an enormous butterfly. "The idea that tyranny exists when one single party holds all power in its hands." The place of religion, a second student continues, arms bare in the afternoon sun—"the necessity, for democracy to function, of keeping church separate from state: is that actually the case everywhere these days?" And a third student, shirt open to his navel, ebullient, cheerful: "But look—Tocqueville isn't Montesquieu—the principle of separation isn't exactly a Tocquevillean principle!" And another, talking offhandedly, through his teeth: "Look at the country's Founding Fathers—weren't they super-religious? Wasn't religion the very foundation, according to them, of a politics that was faithful to morality?" And yet another: "Kerry lost because of abortion; you can't say at the same time that you are conscientiously opposed to abortion and that you want a law authorizing it." And finally a pretty redhead, with long tousled hair, sunburned nose, and the bashful look the sun's glare gives her: "On the contrary—that was his honor. To believe one thing but refuse to impose it on other people; to have your convictions but leave other people free to act the way they want—isn't that a good policy? Isn't that the definition of democracy, in Tocqueville's sense?"
For of course we have begun to talk about current events—which is to say about the re-election of the president. Then, when I ask the question straight out, I am surprised to find that a majority of the small group is in favor of gay marriage, and that the same majority thinks Bush overdid it in flaunting his religious values, and that, indeed, a majority opposed the president's re-election. In short, in this class in Austin, the capital of Texas, a state that is supposed to be a conservative stronghold, the trend seems to be in the other direction. Since yesterday everyone has been harping on the same story of "triumphant moral values." Everyone, myself included, has described this society's profound evolution in the direction of the extreme right, definitively turning its back on its European heritage. Some intellectuals brood about the so-called "tidal wave" that's risen from the Deep South to inundate America, even the coasts. (The critic Jason Epstein lamented this when I saw him not long ago in New York.) But what if that were not the case? What if the fundamental movement, the one that these young people embody even if they don't yet express it, were going in the direction of freedom of behavior, of conduct, of mind? What if in the living forces of this country there were an untamable wish to preserve the great achievements of the democratic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s? What if the election two days ago—far from being the expression of a sinister trend or a reversal, far from heralding the future face of an America that denies the heritage, say, of Kennedy and Roosevelt, and gives shape once again to the ghosts of McCarthyism—were, on the contrary, a last stand? What if it were the last fight of a majority that—furious but desperate, determined but without illusions—knows it won't always be the majority, knows that America has already changed so much that it will be less and less easy to advertise hatred of blacks, Jews, Indians, or women? Here in Austin, on the edge of the South I'm about to dive into, I ask the question.
"The Fall Into Guns" (November 2000)
Few Americans, this cliché-upending book shows, owned guns before the Civil War. What happened? By Richard Slotkin
"Second Thoughts on the Second Amendment" (March 1996)
At the heart of the gun-control debate is a fundamental tension between republicanism and individualism. By Wendy Kaminer
"You won't understand anything about this country if you choose to overlook the question of weapons," the vivacious Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the Texas comptroller of public accounts, had told me in her Austin office. Here carrying a weapon is a right, people explained to me, a right inspired by the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which was explicitly linked with the right to resist tyranny. And what you Europeans don't want to see is that it is guaranteed as such by the Second Amendment of the Constitution. Are you going to Dallas after you leave here? Yes? In that case you should keep on going to Fort Worth, where there's a major gun fair. You'll see what the mood's like. You'll see all the people there. And you'll understand that it's the heart of Texas, and of America, that's beating in that kind of place.
No sooner said than done. Just after reaching Dallas, I take Route 30, the Tom Landry Highway, named after the former coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team. And here I am, in the midst of a most puzzling city, all parks, deserted hotels, highway overpasses with very few cars—here I am at the center of this empty city where neither the admirable Kimball Art Museum, by Louis Kahn, nor the famous Hotel Texas, where John and Jackie Kennedy spent their last night together, seems to attract anyone, and where everything looks as if it's actually been constructed around a Mussolini-style building with a white façade, where a sign reads Great Western gun Show.
In the lobby I see a fat couple, both carrying new rifles. I see a gray-haired fellow with pinched features carrying an oversized package in the shape of a weapon. I give my identity card to a group of policemen who make sure—absurd, but true—that I'm unarmed. I pass a table covered with worn-out felt where the National Rifle Association is recruiting new members. And I enter the showroom.
Hundreds of stands. Thousands of buyers and window-shoppers wandering with concentrated gazes from stand to stand. Groups of people. Families. Overexcited mothers pushing strollers. Old men, young men, eyes shining. Tattooed people and middle-class people. People dressed as Confederate soldiers, looking for guns from the Civil War period. A stand displaying rifles from the Korean War. Another one where people come to caress daggers whose certificates of origin bluntly specify how many "Viets" they've stabbed. Competition Bushmaster AR-15s like the one used by the snipers who killed thirteen people near Washington, D.C., in 2002. A guy who says his name is Yoda, like the Star Wars character, who's selling a "sport version" of the Barrett 82 A-1 .50-caliber rifle. The price? Eight thousand dollars. The procedure? Hold an American passport and carry a valid driver's license. That's it? That's it. No need for any authorization from the FBI? Yeah—a phone call. The agent at the other end takes note; he doesn't take down the serial number, he just takes note. Still, don't you sometimes have to turn someone down? Sometimes, yes. Suppose someone comes to you saying "I've just been robbed. I want a weapon to get revenge." In that case I'd hesitate; you don't sell to a guy who's out of control. What about me, for instance? If I weren't French, would you sell me one of your marvels? He hesitates, looks me up and down. Not sure. I don't sell to just anyone, and you don't know anything about this stuff, it's pretty obvious …
And then, next to Yoda's stand, another one I linger at. The seller is about sixty, brick-red complexion, white hairpiece. A sign says Collector paying top prices. And I notice that the objects of his "collection" are "German war relics"—in other words, Nazi weapons and souvenirs. A jumble of pilots' badges. Goebbels dolls. Swastikas. Lugers priced at $18,000. Himmler's personal revolver. Göring's sword. A piece of the door to Nazi headquarters in Munich. A fragment of what is said to be the Führer's actual helmet. One of thirty-one armbands—"Limited series! Numbered!"—that belonged to his first bodyguards. And, exhibited like the most precious art book, a catalogue containing photographs of the rarest pieces of the seller's collection: life-size wax statues of Nazi officers; helmets in a library; a silver bowl, gift from Hitler to Eva Braun; dishes, engraved with a skull, from which the couple is supposed to have eaten; and the star attraction—an immense painting, almost a mural, showing Hitler in uniform, a coat draped over his shoulders, fist on his hip, quite feminine. Doesn't it bother you to sell this stuff? "Since there are people who want to buy it, someone's got to sell it." Are you aware that this is absolutely forbidden in Europe? "Makes sense. You were occupied; we conquered them!" No misgivings, then? "No misgivings; the Reich killed fewer people than Genghis Khan." Would you sell objects that had belonged to bin Laden? "Oh, no! [outraged] That's completely different! Those things sure wouldn't have the aesthetic quality of these Nazi artifacts."
As I burrow deeper into the show, I'll get to see a half dozen other antique dealers—good Americans who happen to have a bent for the Nazi aesthetic. Here's another display, advertising some of the most prejudicial, controversial films ever made: cassettes of Leni Riefenstahl, Nazi marches and songs, and a film titled The Glory Years: Ruins of the Reich, Vol. III. Seeing what is for sale, I cannot help asking if the emotional power of the defense of gun ownership is fully explained by the fact that it is a constitutional right. Maybe something else is also at work, something uglier. I take to the road again, headed for Louisiana, more skeptical than ever—part of me wondering if the real story isn't here, in this terrible, grotesque fascination. Of course there are all the fine speeches about the right to bear arms. The grandstanding. The campaign arguments. The pompous professions of faith of the NRA and its CEO, Wayne LaPierre, whom I saw the other week in Virginia. But in the end, the unformulated thought of all these gun-toting adherents, the possible horizon to their logorrhea, perhaps its ultimate truth, the secret which, although usually unconscious, seems mutely active in some people's minds, could lie in something else, something evoked by the Hitlerian kitsch, the morbid flirtation with horror.
In Dallas now; the real Kennedy mystery is here.
It's not about knowing whether Oswald acted alone. It's not about the endless discussions of whether there were three bullets or more, if the shots came from behind or in front. It's not about the interlacing theories that blame the loading of the most famous 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in history on Castroites or anti-Castroites, on the Mafia or the CIA, on the Russians, on Johnson, on the far left, on the far right, on the military-industrial complex and the casino lobbies, on China or Israel, on the Jews or the Protestants, on rich Texans, on the FBI, on the Vietnamese, on J. Edgar Hoover, on Howard Hughes.
It's not even about the pathetic and tireless "JFK assassination researchers" I see this morning opposite the Texas School Book Depository, in Dealey Plaza, on the very site of the crime, haranguing their meager public, desperate to sell paraphernalia. One has his "Real JFK Facts," proving the existence of the second shooter, another his "Never Seen World Exclusive Interview" demonstrating that the president's wounds were faked at the autopsy. A third offers a new "Eyewitness Video," whose dramatized freeze-frames, paranoid zoom-ins, blurred faces circled in red, are supposed to shatter the Warren Commission's conclusions. The last has "the missing thirteen seconds" that Abraham Zapruder didn't film, which establish without the least possible doubt that his film was doctored.
No. The mystery, if there is one, is lodged here, on the sixth floor of the book depository, in this emotion that overwhelms me (and I see it overwhelming nearly everyone around me too) as I face these black-and-white images, these films and stills that all of us know by heart.
It is, more precisely, contained in this rare—perhaps unique—emotional reaction, whose equivalent I have experienced in no other situation or museum or memorial in the world. I can only describe the paradox this way:
1. These images are clichés. We've seen them over and over. Nowhere in all these photos of Kennedy's life, or in the short films that run in an endless loop, showing for the nth time either the assassination or the funeral—nowhere does there appear anything even the slightest bit unusual or even mildly unfamiliar. It's not the comic but the tragic aspect of repetition, and the Americans who are here, all the devotees of the myth who came, as I did, into the small projection room to see again, indefinitely repeated, the scene of the last turn, or the one of the motorcade leaving, sirens wailing, for Trauma Room No. 1 at Parkland Hospital, know these sequences by heart.
2. The Kennedy myth itself. For a long time now the Kennedy myth has ceased to be a myth. Or, to put it another way, few myths have for forty years been the subject of a demystifying rage so radical, so unbridled, and in the end—scandal after scandal, best seller after best seller—so overwhelmingly effective. I question the people around me. I talk to these fetishists of memory and legend who have come from all over the United States. All of them, or almost all, know that the spectacle of family happiness with Jackie was a made-up publicity representation. All of them, or almost all, know that the tanned young hero, exuding optimism and health, was a sick man, drugged with testosterone and cortisone, whose air of vitality was an illusion. All of them have at least heard talk of the "sins of the father"—Joseph P. Kennedy's anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi leanings, the suspicious origins of the family fortune, even the shabby tricks that got JFK into the White House. No one can manage to ignore completely that this "great president," this "visionary," this official incarnation of an America that wins and dictates what's right and wrong, had the time in a thousand days to send the first military advisers to Vietnam, to launch the disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and, one year before the beautiful "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, to let the shameful Berlin Wall be raised.
3. Despite all that, despite the stock of information available to anyone who wants it, despite the concealed face that is no longer concealed from most people, despite the methodical disenchantment to which the Kennedy myth has been subjected, one image of this man in his glory is enough. One of his photos as a young, beaming Prince Charming, American tabloid, from Washington to the moon, opulence, happiness, New Frontier, insouciance. One image of Jackie, in an Oleg Cassini gown during their great mediatized lie, is enough. Another one, on the day of the tragedy: pink suit stained with blood, legs splayed, on all fours, all care for image forgotten, leaning over the rear seat of the Lincoln, gathering together the pieces of her husband's brain. Yet another one: Jackie again, in the same bloody suit she didn't want to change out of, next to Lyndon Johnson as he takes the oath of office. Or another: black crepe veil over her face, next to Bobby in tails, or with her two children, climbing the steps of the Capitol on their too-short legs for a final farewell to their father. That's all that's needed, just one of those vignettes, and you are overcome with a malaise that I'm not sure has an equivalent—not even in the images of September 11.
What kind of cliché makes you cry?
What is a myth you no longer believe in but that still functions?
There it is. It's the question asked by lovers of antiquity when they wonder if the Greeks believed in their myths or not—to which they reply, as André Gide did, that it was a matter less of belief than of assent.
And the fact is that in the great, simple sentiments that the Kennedy saga mobilizes; in this live death we are given to witness over and over again without ever tiring of it; in this proximity of suffering and love; in this nexus of power and misfortune, fall and redemption; in this story of youth struck down; in this true story of a glamorous and cursed family, blessed by the gods and pursued by a fate perceived as both inconceivable and necessary, it is the eternal form of Tragedy—"terror and pity," Aristotle said—that is played out and that makes us tremble.
The Kennedys are not, as is often alleged, an American royal family. They are the brothers in fate of Oedipus, Achilles, Theseus, Narcissus, Prometheus. They are the tragic side of a nation that thought it could do without tragedy. They are America's Greeks.
At first sight it's a prison. It's even, apparently, a decent- looking prison. A wholesome life in the great out- doors, on this former plantation north of Baton Rouge, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where you arrive via a sad and splendid road, planted with trees covered in kudzu and Spanish moss.
The bend in the Mississippi: the assistant warden, Cathy Fontenot, young, blonde, hair pulled back, pregnant, explains that the bend serves as a natural barrier on three sides, and renders unnecessary the cumbersome apparatus of watchtowers, barbed wire, walls.
The "trusties"—in other words, the 800 of 5,000 prisoners who have earned certain privileges through good behavior—can walk without surveillance, almost free, on these 18,000 acres of greenery that they call in these parts The Farm.
Carey Lassaigne, for instance, the trusty in charge of the stables, who, with his well-polished boots, his immaculate white T-shirt, his handsome, honest blue eyes, his faithful dogs, looks more like a gentleman farmer than someone doing life.
The cell blocks of "D Camp"—one of six living areas—themselves look all right. They have birds' names: Raven, Hawk 1 and 2, Falcon 1, 2, and 3. The dormitories, showers, collective baths, are in an altogether different league from what I was allowed to see at Rikers Island or in Las Vegas (not to mention that veritable pigsty Tocqueville discovered when he visited New Orleans, where the prisoners, he wrote, lived chained up like animals in the midst of their excrement).
And then there's the rodeo season, which every year in October attracts thousands of tourists from all over Louisiana. The prisoners are so proud of the rodeo they put on that none of them has ever taken advantage of the occasion, or of the relaxing of discipline it inevitably entails, to attempt an escape and, by doing so, risk having the administration retaliate by suppressing this "social benefit."
There's the volleyball court on the impeccable lawn at Falcon 3.
The boxing matches with referees, gloves, all the rules of fair play, as in any Southern university a century ago.
Wood figurines at the entrance to the housing blocks, made by the prisoners themselves for Thanksgiving, represent a fairy, a dwarf, a piglet on a leash.
In short, an above-average prison. A prison that from the outside looks almost like a model prison.
Except for one detail. One small detail, which has less to do with the prison itself than with the ruling legislation in the state, but which causes this landscape of green pastures to topple over into nightmare.
Since Angola is a prison reserved, for the most part, for people condemned to death or to life in prison, and since Louisiana law has the distinctive feature of suppressing the very principle of parole (conditional release for good behavior), the men who enter here know that they'll never get out, and that they're condemned to live without even the vague prospect of release that is the prisoner's final hope in other prisons.
How can you live when there's no hope for anything? How do you prepare yourself for prison when you know that whatever you do, you'll get out only by dying?
You think about your death, Cathy Fontenot replies, unflinchingly. Here at Angola, she explains, we have a magnificent hearse, drawn by a horse and made by the prisoners themselves. We have a special trusty, a carpenter. He builds the coffins with his own hands. Others dig the graves and prepare the wakes. When you don't have a family anymore, or when your family has forgotten you, you go to our cemetery to choose where your grave will be. You learn to read, too; most of these people are illiterate, and they learn how to read so they'll be able to comfort themselves with the Bible or the Koran when their time comes to be led to the death chamber.
I make my way to the cemetery where, in fact, those prisoners for whom Angola was the entire universe are buried.
I visit the death chamber, along with the little adjoining room where a victim's representatives can watch the condemned man's execution by lethal injection from behind glass, and a visiting area whose amenities Cathy Fontenot is proud to explain to me: separate men's and women's toilets; an "evacuation plan" in case of fire; and an immense, hope-inspiring mural showing a man rising into the sky on a winged white horse. In another room are three tables—yes, three; they don't skimp on expenses at Angola—where the condemned man can have his last meal served to him: good meat, foie gras, excellent side dishes, and even, once, a deliciously cooked dish of crayfish, paid for out of the warden's own pocket and prepared by the prison's culinary staff.
Just outside the prison gates is a museum and gift shop where visitors, perhaps some of whom have observed an execution in the death chamber, can buy T-shirts printed with ANGOLA: A GATED COMMUNITY and other souvenirs.
I visit, finally, the strangest part of this decidedly unreal place: the chapel where thirty or so prisoners, sitting on wooden pews, listen to three of their own sing gospel songs to the accompaniment of a Yamaha organ. What hope is there? "Our hope is in here," one of the three ministers, Aubrey Fradieu, a convicted rapist sentenced to life in prison, tells me, striking his heart. "It's been here, inside me, ever since I decided to give my life to the Lord. There's a seminary in Angola; there are hundreds of ministers who have been trained by this prison seminary. That's where the meaning of our life is. It's to reach out to all the prisons of America, spreading the good word that was taught to us here."
The worst thing is that Cathy Fontenot, in a sense, might not be altogether wrong. These men could have become enraged or desperate. They could have fomented revolts next to which the riots of the sixties would look like pale rehearsals. But that's not the case.
It's really a form of life that's been organized here—a diminished life, a bloodless life, but a life all the same.
What may one think about this ersatz life? Is it really the worst, or only a lesser evil? Should we rejoice in the thought that life is stronger than death? Or should we see Angola as a laboratory of the inhuman, where an anti-life is being invented, established under the rule of death and possibly worse than death?
In case I had any doubts, Cathy Fontenot, as she walks me back to the car, removes them. "Hope," she says to me, suddenly thoughtful. "Hope is such a relative feeling, you know … Take, for instance, the old story of one condemned man they unstrapped at the last second because the red telephone, the governor's, rang. True, they re-attached him right away. True, after the governor said something to him—no one knew what—the governor asked to speak to the executioner, and had him strapped down again and executed. But what is hope, if it isn't that? Isn't that proof that hope is still alive in Angola?"
They are everywhere.
For the forty-eight hours I've been in Memphis, Tennessee, following in the footsteps of my youth and of rock-and-roll reminiscence—for the forty-eight hours I've been going from the ultra-kitsch house of Elvis to the bars on Beale Street where they're still singing his songs; from B.B. King's club to Sun Studio, on Union Avenue; and from the Rum Boogie Café to the Music Hall of Fame, where I wanted to see Booker T. Jones's organ—I haven't been able to take a step without bumping into them.
The men are in tails, shirts with starched collars, soft hats or top hats, patent-leather shoes, gloves, carrying canes—black men of all ages, sometimes very old, sometimes fat, sweating under fur coats too hot for the season, puffing, all dressed up as if they were dandies from the Roaring Twenties.
The women, also black and of all ages, all shapes and sizes, some very beautiful, others enormous, in evening dresses, moiré taffeta cloaks, brocades, pearls and earrings, an entire jewelry shop around their necks and on their wrists, iridescent or embroidered silk blouses, gloves reaching beyond the elbows, high heels, hats like hanging gardens, tiaras, veils and fans, gauze and organdy parasols, mink coats reaching to their feet.
In the beginning, I thought they were actors for some grand reconstitution of Tennessee's good old days.
Then, since they were arriving from all over and coalescing in the lobby of my hotel, since they were beginning to be too numerous even to count—hundreds, no, thousands, maybe tens of thousands; it seemed like a joke, or a hallucination, a dream—I told myself that the entire city must have gotten dressed up, and that it was a carnival, as in Venice or Rio.
Is there a carnival in Memphis? I finally end up asking one of these ladies, long, shimmering, bronze-colored outfit, pearl belt and golden diadem, royally awaiting the elevator next to me.
Of course not, she replies. Why a carnival? We're just followers of the Church of God in Christ, and we're having its ninety-seventh annual convention here in Memphis, where it was founded. There are 50,000 of us delegates from all over America, and today is women's day. I'm going. Do you want to come along?
I leap at the chance. I follow her, with some of her friends, to the minibus that's shuttling back and forth between the hotel and the convention center. On the way, I learn that the most beautiful of the women, the ones most richly adorned, are often the wives of bishops.
"We're elegant for Him," the lady tells me. "Beauties of our Lord. Fiancées of God. For a long time black people went to church in rags. Those days are gone. The day of glory has come. It begins like this, in splendor, in the way we dress …"
And so I find myself across the city, in the middle of a secure area where the traffic is directed by police officers, in one of those huge auditoriums I got a taste of at Willow Creek, where thousands of delegates are converging, formal, deadly serious, walking as if in a procession, at once rivals and accomplices in their admirable wish to offer the Almighty the spectacle of their gold and finery.
Same blaring public-address system as in the auditorium at Willow Creek. Same giant screens, on both sides of the stage. Same atmosphere of merchandized faith in the wings, with—even more than at Willow Creek—stacks of flyers advertising cosmetics, hat stores, or communion tables; a preacher, Cody Vernon Marshall of Illinois, campaigning for a board position in his church, distributing on glossy paper a profession of faith the main focus of which seems to be, aside from testaments to "fairness" and "proven commitment," printed in gold letters, a photo of him posing handsomely with a stern look, finger placed pensively on his mouth, dressed in the purple robe of the high dignitaries of his church.
The real difference from Willow Creek—the newness, the shock—is the women.
These thousands of women, now seated, each with adornments more ostentatious than the previous, whose eccentricity and extravagance are a fine challenge to American puritanism.
There are some in their Sunday best I recognize from the streets of Memphis, and others, dressed all in white, whom I haven't seen until now.
There are the wives of bishops but also the young, virginal-looking adepts of what is, I am told, the fastest-growing Pentecostal church in the country.
There are the meditative ones and the ecstatic ones: the ones humming quietly, eyes shut, and the ones singing at the top of their lungs.
There are women who, when Mother Willie Mae Rivers, "international supervisor" of the "department of women," intones her gospel, just have tears in their eyes; and women who get up, begin to dance, and shout, pointing up at the sky, eyes rolling upward: "Thank you, Lord, for being there! Thank you, Lord, for your mercy!"
But the dominating trait, the trait that surprises and, after a while, moves you, is this joy, this fervor, this spirit of communion, which I haven't yet seen in any white church.
The part of comedy and faith in this spectacle?
In the heart of one delegate, from Nebraska, what is the part of civic religion—wanting only to prohibit gay marriage—and what is the part of authentic enthusiasm?
And at the Mason Temple, in that concrete building, half mall, half bunker, where the church's headquarters are and where I'll have a chance, a few hours later, to interview the international presiding bishop, Gilbert E. Patterson; in this Vatican of Pentecostalism, which resembles the center of operations for a holding company more than a house of God, and where all the ministers I meet look like lawyers and all the lawyers look like bodyguards, and where Patterson himself, with his heavy gold jewelry, looks more like a prince of the church than a humble preacher—how can you, in all the bustling activity of this place, disentangle what is ostentatious display and calculating stagecraft from what has to do with the legitimate management of the interests of a church with six or seven million members?
I don't know. I'm incapable of deciding, in all honesty.
But that there exists another kind of religiousness present; that there is in this church and perhaps beyond it, in the big black churches of the South, a quality of bliss that you don't find elsewhere; that there is, at the root, in the population of the faithful themselves, an intensity of piety that has nothing to do with what can be observed in the megachurches of the North—of that I am convinced.
They've been talking about it for months. For weeks the question of being there or not being there was the ultimate one for the beautiful people of New York and Washington. Bono and Barbra Streisand announced they'd be there. Dozens of government officials let it be known that they'd be present or at least represented. Thousands, tens of thousands, of ordinary citizens, from all corners of the country, invaded the city's hotels yesterday. Since it sometimes seems that in America the sole purpose of all history is to end up in a museum, I even overhear a group of Democrats from Tennessee who claim that on the very night of his election in November of 1992 William Jefferson Clinton sent out the first solicitations for contributions toward the building of his monument. They say they began to reserve their places three years ago, to make sure. In short, it is Clinton's big day. It is the moment, so eagerly awaited, when a former president, inaugurating his library, calls the world to witness the glory of his rule. And in this case, everything, truly everything—the beauty of the building and its futurism; its purpose as a boon for Arkansas and a link between generations; its $165 million budget; its 80 million presidential papers exhibited or stored; the quality of the production; the siting of the reviewing stands out in the open, facing the glass-and-steel building; the live telecast of the entire ceremony on giant screens—was planned to transform this dedication into an apotheosis of the Clinton years and what they represent. Alas, that didn't take into account three meager grains of sand that would be enough to throw everything off …
The former president's health, first of all. That wretched heart operation he had to undergo two months back, from which you can sense immediately, whatever they say, he hasn't completely recovered. His voice is good, certainly. It's the voice of the perennial Clinton, cheeky and firm, tinged with a southern lilt and full of authority. But in his thinness, in the slight awkwardness of his step when he gets up to walk to the podium, in his rather childlike way of squeezing Hillary's hand very hard in moments of intense emotion, there is a new frailty.
Then the elections. John Kerry's historic defeat, still recent, the extent of which no one would have imagined a few days ago. It's not Clinton's defeat, of course. Maybe a part of him even obscurely wished for it. But finally, there it is, present in everyone's mind, lending the gathering a quality that's inevitably sepulchral. And it has one little consequence that I'm convinced neither he nor any of his advisers foresaw: since protocol calls for the presence at his side of the sitting president and all other ex-presidents still living, the said sitting president being named George W. Bush and another George Bush being among the ex-presidents, here is the hero of the day framed by two Bushes. Worse, since each of the two Bushes is himself flanked by a Mrs. Bush, Clinton is boxed in not by two but by four Bushes, whose insolent health, seemingly modest but actually triumphant smiles, thick brown or navy-blue wool coats, belted carefully at the waist, upturned at the throat, only emphasize Clinton's new fragility.
And then, to top it all off, the weather. Weather is so ridiculous. It's the uncontrollable, hence neutral, parameter par excellence. But there's weather and there's weather, and since I've been in the United States I haven't seen a storm as violent as the one that's been beating down on Arkansas since morning. So, because the ceremony was planned to take place outdoors, now the whole population of Clintonians, journalists, ambassadors, guests of honor, heads of state, orators, find themselves under umbrellas in an icy rain, with end-of-the-world lightning. "Welcome to my rainy library dedication," Clinton says, attempting to joke. "If my beloved mother were here, she'd try to remind me that rain is liquid sunshine." But you can feel that his heart isn't in it. You can see that the dimness of the sky only adds to his own sadness. "Thanks for coming," he says to Bush, in a humble tone I'm not sure he's feigning. And you have only to observe the Bushes—to see their satisfied smiles when the camera frames them and projects them onto the big screen, to hear George W. explaining, not without ferocity, that the greatest success of the man we've come to honor is "his daughter"—to understand that from their point of view, the affair leaves no room for doubt: Heaven, as usual, has cast its vote—and it has voted Republican.
The stands, which we were told had been overbooked, begin to thin out. Hillary, who planned a long speech, makes do with a few words. Chelsea looks bored. Jimmy Carter looks cold. The noteworthy Democrats, who came to be seen, hide under umbrellas and are so wet that when the camera zooms in, you can barely recognize them. There's Al Gore, his face strangely swollen. Kerry—or, rather, his shadow, almost his ghost, glimpsed for half a second and given timid applause. It's not an apotheosis; it's a debacle. It's not a glorification; it's one more step in the descent to hell that began in Boston fifteen days ago, when Kerry conceded—or maybe, who knows, that began with the Lewinsky affair, six years ago. It's not even that cozy family reunion the Democrats had hoped for; it's not even "time recaptured," when different generations come to see each other before starting in again on their conquest of power—or else it is, but in the Proustian sense, like the terrible ball at the Guermantes' where all the guests are suddenly seen to be twenty years older and appear like caricatures of themselves. For that's the ultimate effect of this lugubrious ballet, that it seems somehow to recoil from the scene it should be celebrating—a bit like in those anamorphoses, where all you need is a mirror, or a change in the angle of your gaze, to deform the whole tableau, in this case the whole Clinton era. His famous legacy suddenly seems altered by the reflected light of this gloomy, twilit, graceless day. What are the final results of the Clinton era, after all? The Balkans, true. The Near East, if you like. The memory, already faded, of prosperity, okay. But from now on this eclipse, too, this disaster.