The hangman by Maurice Ogden
Into our town the hangman came,
smelling of gold and blood and flame.
He paced our bricks with a different air,
and built his frame on the courthouse square.
The scaffold stood by the courthouse side,
only as wide as the door was wide
with a frame as tall, or a little more,
than the capping sill of the courthouse door.
And we wondered whenever we had the time,
Who the criminal? What the crime?
The hangman judged with the yellow twist
of knotted hemp in his busy fist.
And innocent though we were with dread,
we passed those eyes of buckshot lead.
Till one cried, “Hangman, who is he,
for whom you raised the gallows-tree?”
Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye
and he gave a riddle instead of reply.
“He who serves me best,” said he
“Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree.”
And he stepped down and laid his hand
on a man who came from another land.
And we breathed again, for anothers grief
at the hangmans hand, was our relief.
And the gallows frame on the courthouse lawn
by tomorrow’s sun would be struck and gone.
So we gave him way and no one spoke
out of respect for his hangmans cloak.
The next day’s sun looked mildly down
on roof and street in our quiet town;
and stark and black in the morning air
the gallows-tree on the courthouse square.
And the hangman stood at his usual stand
with the yellow hemp in his busy hand.
With his buckshot eye and his jaw like a pike,
and his air so knowing and business-like.
And we cried, “Hangman, have you not done,
yesterday with the alien one?”
Then we fell silent and stood amazed.
“Oh, not for him was the gallows raised.”
He laughed a laugh as he looked at us,
“Do you think I’ve gone to all this fuss,
To hang one man? That’s the thing I do.
To stretch the rope when the rope is new.”
Above our silence a voice cried “Shame!”
and into our midst the hangman came;
to that mans place, “Do you hold,” said he,
“With him that was meat for the gallows-tree?”
He laid his hand on that one’s arm
and we shrank back in quick alarm.
We gave him way, and no one spoke,
out of fear of the hangmans cloak.
That night we saw with dread surprise
the hangmans scaffold had grown in size.
Fed by the blood beneath the chute,
the gallows-tree had taken root.
Now as wide, or a little more
than the steps that led to the courthouse door.
As tall as the writing, or nearly as tall,
half way up on the courthouse wall.
The third he took, we had all heard tell,
was a usurer…, an infidel.
And “What” said the hangman, “Have you to do
with the gallows-bound…, and he a Jew?”
And we cried out, “Is this one he
who has served you well and faithfully?”
The hangman smiled, “It’s a clever scheme
to try the strength of the gallows beam.”
The fourth man’s dark accusing song
had scratched our comfort hard and long.
“And what concern,” he gave us back,
“Have you … for the doomed and black?”
The fifth, the sixth, and we cried again,
“Hangman, hangman, is this the man?”
“It’s a trick”, said he, “that we hangman know
for easing the trap when the trap springs slow.”
And so we ceased and asked now more
as the hangman tallied his bloody score.
And sun by sun, and night by night
the gallows grew to monstrous height.
The wings of the scaffold opened wide
until they covered the square from side to side.
And the monster cross beam looking down,
cast its shadow across the town.
Then through the town the hangman came
and called through the empy streets…my name.
I looked at the gallows soaring tall
and thought … there’s no one left at all
for hanging … and so he called to me
to help take down the gallows-tree.
And I went out with right good hope
to the hangmans tree and the hangmans rope.
He smiled at me as I came down
to the courthouse square…through the silent town.
Supple and stretched in his busy hand,
was the yellow twist of hempen strand.
He whistled his tune as he tried the trap
and it sprang down with a ready snap.
Then with a smile of awful command,
He laid his hand upon my hand.
“You tricked me Hangman.” I shouted then,
“That your scaffold was built for other men,
and I’m no henchman of yours.” I cried.
“You lied to me Hangman, foully lied.”
Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye,
“Lied to you…tricked you?” He said “Not I…
for I answered straight and told you true.
The scaffold was raised for none but you.”
“For who has served more faithfully?
With your coward’s hope.” said He,
“And where are the others that might have stood
side by your side, in the common good?”
“Dead!” I answered, and amiably
“Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me.
“First the alien … then the Jew.
I did no more than you let me do.”
Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
none before stood so alone as I.
The Hangman then strapped me…with no voice there
to cry “Stay!” … for me in the empty square.
[War] is instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands! But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers…but we’re not going to kill…today. That’s all it takes! Knowing that we’re not going to kill…today!
— Kirk in ‘A Taste Of Armageddon‘ (at 6:15 minutes in)
Over our lives, there will be occasions where we will be a victim, we will victimize someone, we will watch a person be victimized and on rare occasions, under the right conditions, we may stop that victimization of another person or refuse to be victimized.
You are probably protesting that you’d ever be one or allow someone to be or make someone into one. Consider these three events and then consider how much they contribute to any historical or current event – global or even personal.
In the early 1960’s, a Yale University professor, Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to test obedience:
He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered with 38 known witnesses. She was attacked twice by the same assailant, her cries for help ignored. No one phoned the police and she bled to death. Or so the story went.
In 1971, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment took place. A planned 2 week experiment in which half of the participants were prisoners and the other half guards. In four days, the guards went from verbal abuse and humiliation to an escalation of sexual humiliation. The experiment had to be canceled after 6 days. The images from this event are parallel to the images and stories from Abu Ghraib.
What these two experiments and the witness response to the murder reveal is that there is no such thing as absolute morals, and by extension, inherent human rights.
Or perhaps at least that who we consider human and worthy of rights is often flexible.
The sum of these three are that ordinary people will absolve themselves of any:
- moral responsibility if that responsibility can be shifted to an authority figure.
- direct responsibility to take action if there are other people around so that responsibility is dissipated through the group. Unless, like in the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, the people involved had a clear understanding of their social role.
- accountability if the “authority” encourages abuse or fails to prevent escalating abuse of a group of people with less power and are not deemed to be equal or even human.
These behavioral factors combined with the right conditions, are what allow everything from genocide to bullying in the schoolyard or workplace to occur in plain view. Evil is banal, not exceptional.
It is the belief that another person or group is not an equal to ourselves combined with the condition of having some power over them, that results in actual abuse or allowing abuse to occur.
Adding government sanction, or worse, a divine authority’s sanction into the mix, is incendiary.
If we all actually believed that we were all equally valuable and entitled to fair treatment and rights, could the following events of the last say 150 or so years have taken place or be allowed to continue to occur? (this isn’t a comprehensive or in any hierarchical order)
- Reservations for Aboriginal people
- Holocaust of the Jews and other social undesirables in WWII
- South African Apartheid/Jim Crow Laws
- Vatican cover up of pedophile priests
- Military abuse of civilians and prisoners in all wars and conflicts
- 9/11 and the resulting war on terrorism
These behaviors and conditions are also applied in medium size (comparatively) contexts:
- Systemic discrimination towards any marginalized group
- The fact of there being marginalized groups
- Religious campaigns against other religions
- Religious campaigns against civil rights advancements, first for women, then ethnic minorities and currently, against gays and lesbians.
- Homeless and working poor
Right down to the personal arena of people who participate in abuse, fail to report abuse or not taking a stand against it.
- Mobs or gangs out to murder or assault random individuals from their targeted group – generally other ethnicity, gays/lesbians/trans, other religious groups
- Harassment and abuse in the workplace
- Bullying in the schoolyard – the ‘Thou Shall Not Fink” school yard code is an excellent example of witnesses being what amounts to complicit in the abuse.
We have to do more than chose not to kill…today, if we are going to reduce, minimize or end these social horrors large and small.
We need to see how these horrors large and personal are related consequences of these social behaviors.
We have to make a concerted effort to see each other as equal humans and not allow systemic discrimination or groups of people to be demonized and dehumanized.
We need a concerted effort to override the religious and social beliefs that allow us to measure others and find them lacking, less than, unworthy of consideration.
Each of us is really only as good a person as we treat and regard others. It gets back to that Think and Care idea.
We have a legal obligation to obey the law, but a moral responsibility to question it.