Code Orange

Code Orange

The whole sad, messy world was on Code Orange alert on the day I left for England.


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. Yates was medicated to sufficient degree for her to be found competent to stand trial; she is now serving a life sentence. If life is not cheap in Texas, it certainly is complicated.

My neighbor came to drive me to the airport. He pulled up in front of my door, applied the brakes and slid into a snowbank from which he could not extricate himself. We decided to take my car. I was tired from last-minute packing. Foolishly I let him drive. He backed out of my driveway, skated across the road and over an embankment, tobogganing down the hill to rest gently against the trunk of a most forgiving tree. We were OK. Life is precious. I did want to execute him, though.

I made the plane, against all odds. As they processed my ticket, I read a large sign assuring the public that if anything happened to us, the Warsaw Convention limited the airline’s liability to $10,000 a head. I couldn’t help thinking about the recent news from Colorado, where the status of pets may be upgraded from “property” to “companions.” That means that in the event of their demise, the bereaved may sue not just for fair market value but for up to $100,000 in emotional suffering.

I found my seat in coach and settled in gratefully. I perused the airplane literature. There was a story about an ad agency in London that is hiring college students who agree to have advertisements temporarily tattooed on their foreheads. The students agree to be out and about for at least three or four hours a day (or risk being nailed by the agency’s “mystery shoppers,” who monitor their whereabouts). The ideal head belongs to someone “cool, reasonably fashionable, and good with the ladies.”

I browsed through another magazine and found a story about young Marines in North Carolina who were getting ready to ship out to unspecified parts of the world. They were having the information on their dog tags permanently tattooed onto their bodies. “Meat tags,” they called them. They felt they needed them “in case they’re blown in half. Then at least some part of them can come back to their folks.”

In the seat behind me, a man was talking to the woman sitting beside him. “The problem is Islam,” he was saying. “The real evil is Islam.” I looked around the plane. It was full of anxious faces, fearful faces of every class, race, religion on earth. Everyone was tensely evaluating everyone else for signs of inherent evil.

When we got to London, the city was on high alert. Heathrow was awash with heavily armed soldiers. I presented myself at customs. The officer looked at my passport, squinted at me, looked back at the picture unhappily.

“You cut your hair,” he said curtly.

“I guess it was a mistake,” I answered, not wanting to be a troublemaker.

“It’ll grow,” he said and handed me back my passport. I walked forth into the city, wishing I had a little of that sanity-inducing medication before meeting my fate on Radio 4.

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