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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

The United States Needs a Moral Upgrade: Troy Davis


To say the nation has lost its moral compass is inaccurate. It implies that at one time we operated under principles of morality, but somehow just misplaced that darn compass and started down the wrong track. And, since a compass is fairly worthless without a map, it also implies that we had a fairly good map of the moral landscape in the first place.

No, with the technology we have available today, it’s about time we upgraded to a moral GPS. The kind that talks to you in your head and says,

“That Black man in the elevator is not going to steal your purse.”

“All Asians don’t look alike and you shouldn’t ask her where she’s from just because you can’t tell the difference.”

“This land where your house is doesn’t really belong to you.”

“A life taken does not give a life back.”

You know, stuff like that. In the voice of Morgan Freeman.

But instead we’re still trying to find our way without compass, map or satellite. And while we’re stumbling around, we’re doing morally abhorrent things like killing Troy Davis.

I listened to the widow of Officer MacPhail say, “We have laws in this land so that there is not chaos. We are not killing Troy because we want to.” She implies it is a system, one she has no control over, that is responsible for his execution. And the system is necessary to keep from some kind of chaotic lawlessness that we’d all inevitably engage in if we didn’t have the death penalty to ‘teach us a lesson’.

No, wait. Not all of us. Those people. Those Black people who recognized they were the ones she’s scared of and showed it by writing Facebook posts, holding up signs and wearing shirts that proclaimed, “I am Troy Davis.”

Because I doubt she thinks she and her family would collapse into lawlessness, looting and killing, if the threat of death was not hanging over their heads. And I don’t imagine she thinks that about her White neighbors.

It reminds me of the time in one of my teacher education classes where we were talking about the use of scared-straight tactics in schools. A young blond woman proclaimed, “I went on a field trip to a jail when I was in high school. We walked into a cell and they closed the bars behind me. I swore at that moment I’d never commit a crime.”

Another student astutely (and sarcastically) pointed out, “Yeah, I bet that’s all that saved you from a life of crime.” Of course, that assumes you even have to commit the crime to be punished.

As a White woman, I am not Troy Davis, I am assumed innocent, even when I am guilty.

Last night I had a dream that I was the prosecutor who successfully sought the death penalty for Troy Davis. I walked into a room with wooden bleacher-style seating in front of a one-way glass window to watch the execution. As I sat down facing the glass, Mr. Davis’s family sat in the row in front of me. Only, they were facing in my direction, rather than watching the preparations for his death. I looked at them and helplessly tried to explain why I had to do what I did, how it was out of my hands. I wanted to apologize to them, but realized no explanation or apology was possible at that moment. Then I woke up because I couldn’t breath due to the lump in my throat from crying.

Does being white automatically make me the prosecutor? I like to think not. At the same time I am constantly asking myself, what more could I be doing to see this doesn’t happen? When have I done enough? This is not out of a sense of guilt, but rather a sense of our collective responsibility to change the system of White supremacy that allows this to happen. To acquire the tools to navigate a new landscape together.

When will we realize that vengeance does not lead down the path to peace? That your suffering will not relieve my suffering? We need to upgrade to 21st century morality and truly see, feel and act from a recognition of our global interconnectedness.

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