Friday, June 29, 2012

Into the Abyss

Michael Perry, eight days before his execution in Texas, 2010
I recently saw the documentary, Into the Abyss, by Werner Herzog. It told the story of a small-town crime involving a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas in 2001.  I don't intend to review the movie in the common sense, though I do highly recommend you see it.

I was struck by how it reflected many of the elements in our society in recent years, at least when it comes to poverty, education, religion, family values, the death penalty, regional politics, and so on. Any of these issues could be the basis for an in-depth discussion of serious import. That a movie would illustrate how all these potentially controversial elements can intersect shows its power.

My takeaway on the most basic level was the seeming banality of the cause of the tragedy. One family had a red Camaro that two teenagers want to take for a joyride. As the plot unraveled, three people were murdered for zero opportunity for gain except for fleeting moments with a red Camaro that ended up rusting in a police yard with a tree growing up its middle.

As banal as this episode was and as venal its genesis, this view of an unremittingly dysfunctional ecosystem of ignorance, poverty, and evil in the town of Conroe, Texas, is a stark reminder of how parts of rural America have, in many ways, been just as abandoned as the more commonly condemned urban environment. Race plays no factor here, though it's striking that this slice of American rural life is as white as the inner cities of America are black. Failure of this magnitude, it turns out, knows no color.

All that's needed for this kind of mayhem is ignorance and the failure of family values. And family values are put on trial here, as an all-white, American-as-apple-pie landscape in what many believe is the heartland of the U.S. is covered in blood, first by the perpetrators and later by the executioners. This version of the executioner's song is played out at Huntsville's Death Row, the most efficient executing machine this country has ever known.

What I found most puzzling -- as, I believe, Roger Ebert pointed out in his review -- was how every person in this drama, whether criminal, victim, investigator, prison chaplain or death-row captain, was deeply and unfalteringly Christian. Not a single aspect of the  tragedy at any one of its stages caused a single player to doubt the wisdom and omniscience of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

At which point Christ and His church had failed to instruct His faithful is hard to determine, but the faith of the various players remained, in the blackest of moments, unshaken. This, I guess, is what the citizens of Conroe, some fifty miles north of Houston, are willing to undergo in this life's journey to the promised land.

I'm prepared for a reasonable amount of moralizing -- certainly more than filmmaker Werner Herzog was prepared to allow himself -- as I look at this white Christian rural region of our country, as steeped in ignorance and societal failure as it is. I don't know the true place these pathetic creatures occupy in the fabric of American life, but the word salvation doesn't seem germane. If this is God's plan in America the exceptional country, then I don't want any part of it.

See the movie for yourself. If you can find solace in faith or a justification of the death penalty in any of it, please let me know. In the meantime, I'll seek to foster education and opportunity and eschew religion and authoritarianism at every turn. We can't break the cycle as demonstrated in Into the Abyss without education and a reexamination of the core values of our homeland.

I know I can be harsh on regions and demographic groups in our America. It's because of films like this, that are so identifiable of one region or group, that I'd like to reach out and really get to know the people that I identify as needing, if you will, rehabilitation. Unquestionably, there are people in rural Texas that are the salt of the earth to whom so much is accorded. And, since Google Maps doesn't a demographer make, I know little of Conroe, Texas, beyond what I could see in the film -- and what I later learned at Wikipedia. Startling fact, considering I blame ignorance for this tragedy: the number-one industry in Conroe, Texas, is public education. (Which got me thinking that in most suburban or small-town America education is almost always the number-one industry. I'll be checking on that.)

I have lived in many parts of the country and the world. By far the safest country I've lived in is Japan. Oddly, it's the only other developed nation that allows the death penalty, though is uses it much more sparingly. (In fact, the U.S. executed 43 in 2011, with Japan executing none for the first time in 19 years.) My year in the Netherlands in 1971-72 revealed the Dutch as a relatively crime-free nation, at least at the time. (Murders per 100,000 are 4.8 in the U.S. to .87 in the Netherlands, as of 2011.) By contrast, my current town of Sonoma, California, the murder rate for 2010 was .0019. For the previous five years it was zero. I couldn't find statistics prior to that, but I'd be surprised if murder happened very much over the years.

Also by contrast, Conroe, Texas, has seen both its property crime and violent crime rates drop dramatically in recent years. 2005 seems a watershed year. Since then its crime rates have been drastically reduced, though its violent crime rate was still above the national average by 2.13% for 2009. The drop appears to track its change from mostly rural to increasingly suburban in nature. Of course, crime has been dropping all across the nation during this whole period, so Conroe may simply be tracking the national trend.

My town of Sonoma's violent crime rate was 41.52% below the national average in 2009.

It's good to see violent crime, for whatever reason, drop in Conroe, Texas. Let's hope it continues, and scenes like those in Into the Abyss can become part of its history and not its future.

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