Fear and the Power of Forgiveness

Posted on October 29, 2012 by Jens Karney

So much of our world is influenced by fear. In the 1930s it was the Depression. The 1950s gave us the Communist Witch hunts. The Cold War grabbed center stage in the 1980s. Today, our biggest fear – next to our impending economic collapse – is undoubtedly international terrorism. Terrorism takes many forms and it bears many names. Most of us are familiar with Al Qaeda, Al Ansar, and the Taliban. Pirates terrorize commercial shipping off of Somalia, while rogue militias prey on defenseless civilians throughout Central Africa.

When we complain about kidnappings and suicide bombings we seldom take time to ask how our many wars are waged. The only real difference between flying a plane into a building killing innocent civilians, and using a drone to kill dozens at an Afghan wedding party is that the pilot of the drone lives to do it again another day. Drones strike fear into the heart of the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership, just as 9/11 struck fear into the hearts of Americans. Whenever you use fear in the prosecution of military aims you have arrived at the definition of terrorism.

As someone who has been kidnapped by the US long before Extraordinary Rendition became a term most Americans were familiar with, I can tell you what terrorism does. First, it scares you. Later, however, after the shock has worn off, you come to your senses. And then you begin to get angry, so angry that you become a more formidable foe than you were before. This happened on 9/11 and Americans were roused into a patriotic fervor rarely seen. It united us against our enemies, the terrorists. So, when we kill reporters with helicopter gunships in Baghdad, or children in the hills of Waziristan, we make our enemies stronger as well. Our technology does not change the fact that we have sunk to the level of our enemies; our technology only makes the death of innocents seem far away or antiseptic. If the death of one innocent on 9/11 was unacceptable, so too are the deaths of the innocents (many of them children) at the hands of drones.

Because I wrote about the Power of Forgiveness in the header, I imagine I should write something here. One of my best friends, David O., a very talented (Special Forces) thief from Fairchild, Washington, loved to say that everyone should go to prison. Having spent more than a couple of years there myself, I tend to agree. Prison is an education, but you don’t always learn what you need, and often you learn things you would would rather not. Prison teaches you, first and foremost, about human nature. It teaches you that every person is capable of good and evil, and that any predisposition is often influenced by one’s immediate circumstances. It’s easy to be generous when you are wealthy, or friendly when you have had a wonderful day. It is just as easy to find a reason to write up an inmate who you don’t care for because your wife is cheating on you – with a former inmate. (Trust me, it happens.). A check-mark in the denial box of a parole application could happen simply because someone didn’t get transferred out of one of the many dead-end jobs in administration.

I have already written that Buddhism saved my life. That is not to say that I am where I want to be as a person. My practice teaches me to treat this realization as a blessing rather than a reminder of failure. That is why it is called practice – because as humans we never seem to get it quite right. I occasionally engaged in a practice that sought out my biggest adversaries. During my years at Leavenworth I was incarcerated with at least five service members who murdered other service members simply because they were gay. Two of them were very high profile (national news), and most seemed unrepentant. Two became the prison-equivalent of best friends, and I was on speaking terms with all but one.

One day at evening chow I decided to sit at a table with two friends. I placed my tray down at the remaining empty spot and went back to get some bread. I did not realize that the tray opposite mine belonged to a so-called ’enemy’. As fate would have it, we returned to the table at the same time. We both stopped in our tracks and stared at each other, and then at out mutual friends, who were now sheepishly averting their eyes in dread. The other inmates still waiting in the chow line fell instantly silent. Everyone expected trouble.

We both took our seats without a word, however, and avoided eye contact. I, an openly gay inmate, was sitting across the table from a man who had brutally murdered a fellow sailor because he was gay. You couldn’t have planned it that way. One of the other two inmates looked at me and pointed to my enemy: “Jens, he has the book you are waiting for from the library. Shogun?”

“I’m almost done with it, dude,”  my enemy said quietly, still chewing his food, “I love that book. I am into the whole Japanese thing.”

“Really?” I said, “Well, it looks like we have something in common then…”

That simple exchange slowly evolved into sporadic conversations. A few months later I was transferred to the same Wing and we soon found that, despite our differences, we actually had much in common. I remember all of the sensational things I had read about his case, and they had even allowed the Lifetime Original Movie about him to be shown in prison. One night after count, I grabbed our coffee cups and headed to the empty rec room. After we stirred our instant coffee into the metallic tasting water, I asked him: “How come you don’t kill me?”

“We’re friends,” he said. “It’s different… You wouldn’t understand.”

“I am asking you. I want to understand. I want to know why you can destroy one gay man’s body so badly that he is unrecognizable, but you can sit here with me and discuss the process to harden the blade of a samurai sword.”

So he told me. Everything. Everytime he mentioned his victim’s name I could see his battered face in my mind, but I continued to listen, because the man in front of me wasn’t a murderer. Not anymore. He was my friend. He had killed someone, but he was more than that one act, no matter how heinous. And just as my teacher told me, every person is a brother or son, a mother or father, sister or daughter to someone. Everyone is loved by someone, somewhere, and for all the right reasons.

That young man is now nearly twenty years older, as am I. I am free, and he still sits knowing that the military will never forgive him. There is a reason for that, and it has to do with complicity. And for that reason, my friend will probably never be a free man again.

I wrote a parole letter for him shortly before my release – a plea of clemency to reduce his life sentence to 99 years, which would make parole at least a technical possibility. I have offered to speak before the Naval Clemency Board on his behalf. If he were released, I would help him find a job and a place to live. The man I know changed at Leavenworth: he went from being a bully to protecting vulnerable inmates from bullies. He is not a saint, but he is a man that still has value as a human being. If I could magically take a picture from those days it might be a snapshot from the weight room, where the murderer of a gay man is standing over the weight bench spotting the heavy weights being lifted by a gay man – “I got ya, buddy… It’s all you!” What’s life without irony?

Many of my gay friends don’t understand how I could be friends with such a man. I only tell them that is because I chose to recognize the good things in him.


“Life is suffering.” – Gautama Buddha