Friday, August 7, 2009

NEVER Be Surprised By Death

The news about suburban teen flick auteur John Hughes yesterday no doubt came as a shock to his legions of fans. After all, the famously-reclusive director and onetime wunderkind behind Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Sixteen Candles was only 59 when he succumbed to an apparent heart attack during a morning stroll in Manhattan while on a family visit to New York.

But Hughes's demise shouldn't really have been a surprise. Not because of his age, or that he hadn't experienced reported health difficulties, but rather because in a vital existential—if not also emotional—sense, we should never be surprised by death.

Let me explain.

It so happens that Hughes died on Hiroshima Day, the 64th anniversary of history's first nuclear attack, and that of course reminds everyone of Japan. And Japan, it turns out, follows a capital punishment policy which for over a decade has positively haunted me.

I first heard of this from that so-often-unreliable media realm, commercial newstalk radio. I wish I could aver that my favorite variety of media and longtime meal ticket is a dependable source of factual data, but the sad truth is that newstalk hosts often don't display absolute respect for fact. Clowns on the right like Glenn Beck and Michael Savage, on the left like Mike Malloy and Randi Rhodes, and like George Noory in the pseudoscientific mudd, er, middle—dispense all sorts of musings littered with half-truths or total misinformation. I'm not talking here about commercial radio talkers' intentional misrepresentations, which each of those reckless, if also sometimes talented, jerks are also known to promiscuously deal in. Rather, I refer to those incorrect statements they make which they honestly think to be true.

Intended to buttress their ideological arguments, these pieces of misinformation are believed or assumed to be accurate by hosts even though they've never taken the trouble to nail them down for accuracy before incorporating them into their ideological acts. Whatever my shortcomings as a commercial newstalker, I can go to my grave with the consolation that every moment of my 19 years of on-air hosting I considered my principal role to be that of a broadcast journalist, and thus subject to every constraint legitimate newsmen must work within in order to ensure factual integrity. It's true several management types in newstalk radio, and many more of my fellow hosts, counseled me that "you take this all too seriously, Bryan—this is just entertainment," but I'm proud I handled myself like a newsman, not a court agitator, or jester.

No it wasn't "just entertainment". Rather, my beloved—and, alas, former—profession was always about reliably providing information and perspective on the news and the society (and for scientifically-literate shows like my own, the universe). The fact is that probably fewer than a third of my colleagues recognized this journalistic responsibility to maintain the highest possible standards of factual accuracy.

Knowing how rare my shouldered burden was amongst my colleagues made me leery of something I heard a guy say on WXYT, a scrappy Detroit newstalk outlet competing with my onetime home, WJR. In 1994, I heard him claim that Japan employs a novel approach to the death penalty: upon receiving a death sentence for some capital crime, the condemned is not assigned an execution date, either immediately or even on a deferred basis after appeals and other bureaucratic considerations had been fulfilled. Instead, the predicament that at least some Japanese death row residents face is, oddly enough, both a certain and uncertain future.

The host claimed in passing to his caller that the policy in Japan was to let death row prisoners contemplate their fate while awaiting the inevitable, never knowing until the day of the event when their sentence would be completed. Thus each day, when the guards came around to deliver the breakfast meal, they could actually be there to accompany the prisoner on his last long walk.

Now this also came into play on my own Detroit show—as well as all my subsequent broadcasts in Chicago, Albuquerque and up here in Seattle—whenever the capital-punishment issue came up. And as every newstalk listener knows, it's a frequent topic of speed-of-light conversation on just about every station. I'd invoke this supposed Japanese policy typically in response to a caller's familiar argument that the death penalty is too easy on the worst of the worst. Isn't life without parole possibility a more fitting fate for mass murderers, they'd often posit, since obviously you can't equate the condemned's sole corpse with the multiple bodies he left in his wake at the crime scene? Well, I argued, if true, that unusual Japanese approach would have offered something of a solution to that problem, for in effect, it made every day on death row an execution date.

If that Japanese policy was indeed the case. Something which I never could confirm, despite considerable research on the question. I never got the chance to meet my competing colleague, else I would have questioned him as to his source for this elusive supposed fact. So for the ensuing decade, I kept periodically delving through Japanese crime stories or just asking acquaintances whom I thought might know about this, without success.

Still, whenever I used it on the air, I was always scrupulous about qualifying this in "Well, I've heard that..." terms, never once leading my audience to believe it definitely was true. Besides, even if the story regarding the policy in Japan was spurious, my point still was valid, and thus at least arguably possible for some U.S. state to institute. (When advancing that, of course I also observed it would be immediately assailed as unconstitutional on cruel-and-unusual grounds, and probably wouldn't pass Supreme Court muster unless the high court was then impanelled by Antonin Scalia and at least four of his clones.)

Now it so happens that late last year an article ran on the AP International wire which established that, for at least four current male residents of Japanese death row, the Detroit newstalker was correct! The way the AP covered the story, it was unclear whether the policy was also still applied to every male death row inmate, much less for condemned women as well. But of course the important part was that nearly a decade and a half after hearing of this, I finally had it confirmed. The AP copy concerned a review of their cases to see if the policy would be lifted and specific execution days set.

When I read this I was naturally relieved at having never dealt in misinformation on the question, and also looked at my former WXYT competitor with newfound retrospective respect. But mostly I was enjoying the pride I felt in having endeavored to invariably qualify my passing on hearsay as something yet unconfirmed. My hunch is that's a consideration very few of my colleagues honor beyond an initial basis. After that, the wording tends to morph into "it is said" or some other such consensus phraseology, and soon enough it's simply misremembered as fact.

At this point, and at the risk of sounding colossally impertinent, it should be mentioned that the ever-determined Wile E. Coyote, in his perennial pursuit of the vanishing-point Roadrunner, usually enjoyed an advantage I didn't have working for me that day last year when I read the AP dispatch. And that's my own fault, a simply egregious lapse of forethought. For remember, I'd been wondering about all this for well over a decade, and thus had had ample opportunity to contemplate its consequences. (And you also have had as long as it's taken to read the previous six paragraphs for this sober realization to dawn on you.) For whenever his latest plan involving a special-ordered Acme anvil somehow backfired and Wile E. found himself about to crushed instead, he still typically had three or four seconds staring aloft to brace himself for the impact. Sure, that never did much good for the hapless but crafty cartoon critter once the plummeting iron made impact, but at least he usually saw it coming.

Unlike me. For while wallowing in professional pride about tirelessly upholding journalistic standards, a profoundly disturbing truth pulverized me. For the reason this whole business had been haunting merather than merely piquing my curiosityall these years is that it was focussed on conjuring the worst possible fate any human might endure.

So this condemned guy awakens every morning knowing it could be the day of his painful death. And given the extraordinary variety of ways today, Friday, August 7, 2009 may calamitously prove to be the final day of my life, I also constantly face this reality, even while not thinking about it. And so do you.

So we're all on Japanese death row. Anvil flattens.


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