A Good Death
It is generally understood that, like people, institutions also have lives, go through growth spurts, weather transitions and endure crises. During bleak periods it seems that institutions also face death. Last year a few Wall Street giants died in their sleep, not painless deaths, but lives snuffed out in the night. Some deaths are slow. Centuries of predictions of the church’s demise still ring hollow, but religious life as the church has known it appears to be struggling for breath. As the sisters and brothers in religious congregations ask themselves, “Have we fulfilled God’s purpose?” most Catholics would answer with a grateful, resounding yes. Religious communities may be at a turning point or a natural endpoint—the flower’s death in due time, one lovely bloom off the rose of the church for now.
What are the hallmarks of a good death, institutionally speaking? News of the closure of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York on Nov. 30 prompts the question. Surely a good death includes having had some success toward a worthy goal. The N.P.L.C., founded by Msgr. Philip J. Murnion 25 years ago, aimed to support the church’s parish ministry by attending to its leaders. The center faithfully served dioceses and parish leaders—pastors and staff primarily, but also core parishioners who came to its conferences and read its magazine, Church. The center did not long survive its founder’s death. The center’s considerable achievements deserve to be acknowledged and remembered. Two continue: the Catholic Common Ground Initiative moves to the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The Roundtable for Diocesan Social Action Directors will be relocated in the Baltimore/Washington area. Who will now focus their energies on supporting parish leaders?
The Geography of Justice
Depending upon whom you consult, the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, just blocks from ground zero, is either the best or the worst place to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other accused terrorist co-conspirators. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement on Nov. 13 about plans for the trials of the 9/11 suspects set off a fierce debate over the proper location and type of trial.
By opting for a civilian trial, the Obama administration is definitively repudiating the Bush policy of circumventing civilian courts and relying on offshore detention locations (including Guantánamo Bay) and military commissions to try suspected terrorists. A civilian trial in any venue risks giving the suspects a platform for inflammatory rhetoric against the United States. The likelihood of such a publicity nightmare is bolstered by the treatment these suspects have received while in U.S. custody, including repeated waterboarding.
Raw geography has shaped the debate in New York itself. Local opponents of the decision cite the fear of reopening deep wounds that survivors of the terrorist attacks and the families of victims can scarcely bear. And could a pool of New Yorkers yield truly impartial jurors?
Most opponents of civilian trials object to offering the standard protections of the American criminal justice system to these particular defendants. But is it really possible to construct a coherent argument that starts with the premise that certain criminals do not deserve the routine due process rights found in U.S. law? That question directs attention back to the shadowy legal territory between the categories of enemy combatant and domestic criminal. Perhaps Manhattan turns out to be the perfect showplace of American justice. Let the trials begin.
The Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University has been widely praised for its work investigating the wrongful prosecution of criminal defendants. Thanks to research conducted by journalism students at Medill, 11 prisoners have been exonerated, including five who were on death row. Now the Innocence Project is the focus of an inquiry conducted by the Cook County prosecutor’s office. Officials are seeking access to student notes and class curriculum materials related to an investigation that lead to the exoneration of Anthony McKinney, who was serving a life sentence. Prosecutors contend that students conducted their research in an improper manner and that although they later published an article on the case, the class materials they used are not protected by the laws that shield professional journalists. (The Chicago Sun-Times ultimately published an article based in part on the students’ research.)
The passage of a proposed federal shield law that seeks to protect freelancers and bloggers as well as traditional reporters would be an important step toward clarifying the status of all working journalists. The Medill Innocence Project is proof that important work can be done by any reporter with the right blend of curiosity and determination. Whether a reporter’s work appears in print or online or simply serves as a catalyst for other journalists should not diminish the writer’s legal protections.