Lately I’ve been watching a series on PBS about Abraham and Mary Lincoln. I found the beginning two parts of it to be very interesting, fulfilling my interest in history and my desire to understand people and their motivations. But soon enough I became uncomfortable, as I always do, when faced with people’s strange feelings and reactions to “otherness,” in this case African-American life and the “legal” practice of slavery.
Today, during parts three and four, I nearly changed the channel as comprehension eluded me, or came into focus so sharp that it hurt to see. The story below came up in me — a flailing response to the pain of political ridiculousness, I’m sure — but it took me away from the sharpness far enough to sit at my keyboard and try again to make it understood, because the conversation is far from over.
The president arrived at his office, closed the door and headed for the stack of papers on his desk. Upon hearing the sound of breathing across the room, he found an unfamiliar man there staring at him. “How did you get in here?”
The stranger removed his hat with one hand and said, “That does not matter at this point.” Before the president could call out for help, the man spoke again. “Your son has been taken.”
“Your son has been sold.” The stranger watched the president’s face express shock and the downward trajectory of his heart.
“You are mad,” the president huffed through trembling lips.
“No. I am sane and pragmatic, as are you and surely the other men entrusted with running this country.” He gripped his hat in front of him with both hands, waiting for his statement to sink into the steel trap of the statesman’s mind. “And your youngest is gone now. I doubt that you will ever see him again. I have sold him in such a way as to render your power and finances of little help to you, though I do suspect that if you try very hard, you may eventually find the boy, especially if our side wins the war.”
The president straightened his back with determination to contain his fear. He began to compose a rebuttal to counter this new enemy and make him see reason. “You cannot possibly succeed in this horrible exercise to tear apart my home. If not me, think of my wife. How could the boy’s mother be expected to bear this?”
The stranger turned to the velvet back of the chair nearest him and lightly stroked the fabric as the turn of his mouth registered a mild amusement, his eyes a glazing of anger. “Indeed,” he said with formidable calm.
The president pressed his side against the desk just enough to keep himself from sinking. “This is kidnapping. Surely you know that you will be prosecuted.”
“What would that change? Would you expect his return through our present system of law? You should understand better than anyone how much law is about the moment. All that follows from it stems from those notions and provisions already in place. Even if one does aspire to some semblance of fair treatment for all, changing things is difficult. Is not tending to the whole more important, making human sacrifice necessary?”
“H-human sacrifice? What are you talking about? Are we barbarians?”
“That is a question I have wanted to ask you, sir. Are we barbarians?”
The president’s voice was hushed. “Of course not.” His thoughts flew past him as he contemplated his plight. He had trouble holding onto any one of them long enough to argue sense to the stranger who was breaking him in two. “Listen to me,” he said, “I can see that something is on your mind. Let us discuss your points like men — leave my child out of this. Return my son and let us speak to your concerns.”
“The country as a whole has done nothing but speak to my concerns during these last bloody years. What good has that done for decency and freedom?”
“But my son …”
“Perhaps it is time to think about more important things than your son.”
“You are mad. We are talking about an innocent child here! How can you be so callous?”
“Callous?” The stranger cocked his head as he contemplated the word. “You think my selling your son into slavery is callous? This is something you believe?”
“Wait … how can you say you’ve sold my child into slavery? He is not …” The president’s voice grew silent as if something thick and cold fell over him, muffling his body as it folded in on itself and sank into a chair in front of his desk.
The stranger watched, the glaze in his eyes glinting strong in the lamplight. “You are answering your own questions now, I see. This is all I could hope for. In the years that have passed until now, reason has been too much. Step by step, it has been taken out of the equation because it gets in the way. There seem to be things that those who lead find more important.
“Reason got in my way, too. I preferred to talk and write and appeal to human virtues as if all people had them. I thought those virtues were only dormant and waiting for the right progression of words from a caring soul to bring them to light and move them into the realm of deeds. I thought that until yesterday. Then I decided to ignore reason, too. I fear for tomorrow.”
Soft sobs rose from deep inside the president, becoming rattled retching sounds that filled the space between him and the stranger who lamented, “I have hoped for it, and hope for it still, but I do not see reason on the horizon.”