09/24/2011 04:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2011

Waiting for Better Angels

When the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis on Wednesday night, I was thinking of the old fable about the scorpion who asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog resists for fear of being stung, but the scorpion, who can't swim, insists that he would never sting the frog mid-stream, as it would kill them both. The frog agrees, and, halfway across the river, the scorpion stings him anyway; as they drown, the frog asks the scorpion why he would condemn them both to die, and the scorpion replies, "I couldn't help myself -- it is my nature."

I thought about that because I don't like thinking about the needle. In Georgia, when they decide that they want you to die, they fill your blood with a cocktail of pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. They do it, sometimes, even when seven of the nine witnesses who testified against you in court come forward to recant their statements and reveal that they were coerced into lying under oath. They do it whether you are black or white, although they are much, much more likely to do it if you are black. They return your violence, real or fabricated, with a violence of their own -- of our own -- and they do it without a second thought, as a cultural instinct, an impulse to sting, because it is our nature.

Ours was a nation borne of vengeance, and conceived in the fever pitch of a righteous anger. We arrived in a war, rough, rugged and violent, and it was in our second formative act of violence -- and our first against each other -- that a president called upon us to access the better angels of our nature. We seek them still. For a nation that has done so much for humankind -- for freedom and democracy, for civil liberty and global peace -- our birthright is, as it has always been, a sacred and beautiful ideal, forged in our noblest intentions, and contaminated by the malignant tumor of a violent temperament.

Sometimes, our violence is just, as when we halted Hitler or buried bin Laden at sea. Too often, however, it is not the gallant streak, but the barbaric urge that motivates our national desire for vengeance. And is it our nature to deny that merciful reflex to which great nations, like great kings, have always aspired? For every beacon of sense, we have produced an equivalent morass of senselessness: the nation that gave the world Dr. King also shot him dead; the land of Lincoln is the land of McVeigh; we declared our independence, and enslaved a race of our fellow women and men. And though we hold ourselves to be the best of all the countries of the world, in the year 2011 we still strap down and slaughter prisoners that we have captured, convicted and contained.

This is cruelty from another century, and not worthy of the better angels of American nature. Troy Davis' guilt was a matter of tremendous doubt, and as we add him to the crooked ledger -- another point for blind and unnecessary violence, another blow to our shared humanity -- let us ask ourselves if our country isn't at last ready to rise above its most primitive instincts. If someone I loved was taken from me, I would want the person I believed responsible to be dead. But the way that my passions as a human being compel me to behave is not how our government should behave. This is precisely why we form nations: to be better, stronger, calmer and fairer together than we ever could alone. How many more times will we feel the need to sting before that ugliest cavern of our nature can at last be overcome?

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