Code Orange

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, March 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

Code Orange


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


The whole sad, messy world was on Code Orange alert on the day I left for England. I was on my way to present a lecture at Oxford University, part of a fundraiser for Amnesty International, and it was a very, very bad hair day. I was feeling unusually apprehensive because the lovely BBC was set to interview me the following morning, and I'd just learned that they were already advertising my coming with a titillating lead: "She's been called a troublemaker, hostile and anti-white. We'll see what Patricia Williams has to say in response to that."

It had been a hard day even before that, though. My son had started the morning by juggling apples and oranges recklessly and badly; one of the apples magically grew wings and cracked the dining room window. We'd patched it with duct tape and a jumbo-sized clear plastic garbage bag.

"Look Mummy," he said, trying to cheer us both up. "Homeland Security."

"Safe at last," I agreed.

It was snowing hard in the world beyond our windows. A foot and a half with more to come. On National Public Radio, the news sounded like bad Swiftian parody. An Eighth Circuit Appeals Court judge had ruled that a deranged prisoner on death row could be forced to take an antipsychotic medication to make him sane enough to execute. The drugs were generally beneficial to the prisoner, according to the court. "Eligibility for execution is the only unwanted consequence of the medication." The devil is always in the details, I suppose.

Meanwhile, John Ashcroft was pressing for more frequent executions. While many have worried that a disproportionate number of minorities are given capital sentences, Ashcroft was pushing the State of New York to speed up its machinery of death by executing ten minority inmates, despite the more lenient recommendations of prosecutors. Ashcroft said he was doing it to promote equality in the administration of justice. Geographic equality, it turns out--apparently New York is just going to have to do more to catch up with Texas, league champion of executioners.

Texas is, after all, such a shining example of the power of deterrence. The tabloids were busy that day, hungrily lapping up the taut, made-for-TV drama of the Clara Harris trial. Harris allegedly ran over her husband a good two or three times with her silver S-Class Mercedes because he'd cheated on her. She'd planned to have breast enlargement for him, she wept from the stand. She'd gone to the tanning salon for him, quit her job as a dentist for him. Polls showed Texans surprisingly sympathetic to these claims of a woman wronged. In contrast to the Eighth Circuit's attempt to craft a theory of temporary sanity for purposes of execution, Harris called her dead husband's family to support her defense of temporary insanity, exempting her from the electric chair. It was a marriage "made in heaven," according to her mother-in-law, a union torn asunder only by a series of "mistakes" made by "two of the finest people I know," according to her father-in-law. In an odd twist, Harris's brother-in-law, Gerald, turns out to have been a psychologist who testified last year in the trial of Andrea Yates, a genuinely psychotic woman who drowned all five of her children.

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