On a Charming Prisoner

The world is filled with stories and films like The Green Mile that depict relationships between prisoners and their guards. It makes sense that people who spend time together in enclosed situations would talk and, on occasion, become friendly. This is a story like that.

The guards, in this case, were 12 young American soldiers in charge of a single prisoner. To many of the guards, this older man seemed like a genial grandfather. They would swap stories with him about growing up. They would smoke cigars together with him. The older man was charming and seemed kind. Bonds developed between the prisoner and the 12 young men guarding him.

That’s always a dangerous situation to be in, isn’t it? When you become emotionally involved in a situation like that, you start to lose perspective on things like right and wrong, crime and punishment, good and evil. That seems to be the case here.

The old man told the younger men jokes, he wrote poetry for them, and, when he complained that he wished he had books to read and a way to document his time in custody, the young men found some space for him where he was being kept and turned it into a sort of office so that the old man could have his own private area in which to write and to read.

Again, it makes sense that these young soldiers—who were either guarding the prisoner or sequestered in their quarters—would become emotionally connected to their only prisoner. Inevitably, the subject of why he was being held prisoner came up. The old man told his minders that he was baffled as to why he was being held by the Americans. All he wanted to do was read Dostoevsky and write in his journal. He always considered himself a friend to the United States and could not figure out why they did not see him as an ally. They agreed with him.

One of the 12 guards told the old man one day that his brother had died. The old man rose from his bed and enveloped the younger man in a warm embrace. “I will be your brother,” he told the young man, and the two of them shared tears. Soon, the guards did not even bother to close the door to the old man’s cell. They knew he would not run away. They trusted him, and he trusted them. He even offered to pay for college for one of the soldiers. The guards shared American popular music with him, and he came to love it and request it often. He ate American food because of the 12 guards.

Once, he asked for access to his prison’s courtyard, and the guards were amazed that he wanted to water some weeds that he had seen growing in one corner. They allowed it and were again shocked that he began caring for the weeds as if they were beautiful plants. Again, the young men began questioning the morality of incarcerating someone who seemed so caring and so loving, someone who appeared so empathetic and wise and nurturing.

Inevitably, the old man sentence was handed down, and he was ordered to be hanged. The young guards were stunned. They felt a terrible injustice had been done.

But that’s the thing about psychopaths, isn’t it?

You shouldn’t ask his charmed American guards if the old man deserved death. Instead, you should ask the families of the tens of thousands that Saddam Hussein killed if he deserved his punishment.

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