I woke last Sunday morning to find an email with the subject line, “Hysterical Racist Hack.” It was sent to me by one Robert G. Smith. I don’t know Mr. Smith, but he had this to say:
Hey America-hating bitch,
Re your quotes in the Times: You sound like an hysterical fukkking (sic) snowflake homo. Stick to what you do best: Brainwashing the little bastards at corny u. See you on the campus.
The quote that set him off appeared in an Associated Press article about what a Biden administration might mean for the 40 remaining prisoners at Guantanamo. I have defended detainees at the base since shortly after they arrived and was lead counsel in Rasul v. Bush, where the Supreme Court held that prisoners could challenge their detention in federal court. Here’s my quote, in its entirety:
Whittle it down to the folks who are being prosecuted and either prosecute them or don’t, but don’t just hang on to them. At great expense, we walk around with this thing around our necks. It does no good. It has no role for national security. It’s just a big black stain that provides no benefit whatsoever.
The conventional wisdom is that you should never respond to hate mail, much like you should never feed wild animals; it only encourages bad behavior. But Mr. Smith is not a wild animal. He is a human being who, like everyone else, has agency and should be held accountable for what he says and does. As importantly, his Sunday morning missive provides an opportunity to clarify the relationship between forgiveness and responsibility, which is perennially a source of confusion.
I have written about forgiveness in a number of recent essays, including my latest. It is much on my mind. I don’t know why, but as the national tone gets uglier, my commitment to forgiveness gets stronger. I view forgiveness as a radical call to embrace the complexity of the human condition, and in that way to act as a bulwark against the simplistic and dangerous us-versus-them branding that threatens to consume us.
Many people seem uninterested in forgiveness, which I also take as a sign of the times. In a deeply divided age, people have invested great energy in the creation of demons. And having conjured them into existence, we must also vanquish them, or so folks seem to think. This being true, people are especially troubled by my belief that I can forgive someone even if he does not atone or repent. Indeed, he doesn’t even have to change his ways. This strikes them as simply wrong.
But the objection confuses forgiveness and responsibility. To forgive begins with the recognition that a person’s behavior has its origin in sources that are infinitely complex, from the neurological and cultural to the psychological and political. From this recognition, I have come to accept that if I were truly in another’s shoes, I could very well act as they did. This is the part that so many people reject. I could not be the torturer, they protest. I could not be the prison guard at a concentration camp. This strikes me as a refusal to face oneself in the mirror, which is either an act of cowardice or hubris. I have very little doubt that in another world, I could be James Mitchell, the architect of the CIA “enhanced interrogation program” who tortured my client. Knowing that I could be the monster, I find forgiveness less daunting.
In short, forgiveness is not about the demon. It is about me.
Yet that does not mean a person can transgress without consequences. Forgiveness may be about me, but responsibility is about him. To forgive, in other words, is not to excuse, and a person who wrongs another must still be held to account, which brings us back to Mr. Smith and his hate mail.
When I think about Bonecrusher Bob, I start from the premise that no child is born believing it is a good thing to hurl obscenities and threats at a perfect stranger. This is learned behavior. He has been taught, from myriad sources, that certain ideas and institutions are threatening to his personal and political identity, and that the proper way to respond to those threats is to lash out, however impotently, at their perceived source. We know from the work of scholars like the political scientist Karen Stenner that certain people are psychologically predisposed to think in these terms, and are uniquely susceptible to authoritarian manipulation. Knowing this, I find it easy to forgive poor Bob.
Still, I have no qualms about holding Mr. Smith accountable for his misbehavior. To be sure, he has not committed a grave sin, and penalties should always be proportional to the injury. But at the very least, he should know that what he has done is wrong. He is thus responsible for the mistaken belief that disagreement over matters of substance should be met with personal insults. If he thinks the prison at Guantanamo still has a role in national security or that it provides some benefit to the United States, I welcome his views. This is indeed a discussion worth having. But presumably his mother taught him better than to wail like a spoiled brat when adults are speaking.
He is responsible for the idea that what he imagines to be my sexual preference is ever fair ground for attack. Worse, he is responsible for the implication that disagreement with his views is automatically evidence of homosexuality. If, as it appears, he is insecure about his own sexuality (Bonecrusher Bob? Really?), I encourage him to embrace his true self. But presumably he knows better than to dress his insecurity in Roy Cohn-like invective.
He is responsible for the suggestion that criticism of government action is a mark of disloyalty. If he can articulate the principle that allows him to distinguish between good and bad criticism—between, for instance, Donald Trump’s criticism of judges who uphold the election and my criticism of judges who uphold Guantanamo—then I look forward to hearing it. But until then, presumably he knows how to use a dictionary and can look up the meaning of hypocrisy.
He is responsible for the attack on higher education. Cornell University, where I have the privilege to teach, is the proud alma mater of, among many others, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has shown himself to be one of the most determinedly independent minds in the country. There is no more brainwashing at Cornell than there was fraud in the election, but if he can provide evidence of either, I welcome his proof and we can discuss it like rational adults. Until then, he should know better than to regurgitate talking points fed to him by others.
He is responsible for his thinly veiled threat of violence. If he wants to explain how a promise by a self-described “bonecrusher” to “see [me] on the campus” is anything other than a threat, I look forward to his account. But until then, presumably a lawyer can help him find the statute where he lives that criminalizes credible threats.
And finally, he is responsible for acting on the belief that the right way to express one’s views is to toss epithets at someone he doesn’t know. Presumably he learned better in kindergarten, but perhaps he needs a refresher.
I can forgive Mr. Smith because I know his rant most likely comes from a place of psychological and cultural insecurity. But I can also hold him accountable for his behavior. It takes both forgiveness and responsibility to answer hate mail.