Tuesday, October 07, 2003


It started in March when Elvis Costello sang Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy" during his concert at Royce Hall. Although the song may have come to mind before that, for some other reason. It is a classic commentary on hypocrisy. This line seemed particularly relevant: "Everybody's crying peace on earth, just as soon as we win this war."

And mercy comes back to me in the words of my two favorite songs from Joe Henry's new album: "The sign of the times, the rules of the road, and our coat of arms all scream that mercy gets old" ("Lighthouse") and "Mercy, hope, faith and love and treason, are trumped as long as darkness holds" ("Sold"). Mercy creeps into his work in other places, too, I noticed during his show last weekend at the Getty.

Even on "Angel," of all places, there is mercy. As newly appointed head of the L.A. branch of the evil interdimensional law firm Wolfram & Hart, Angel at one point contends with the leader of his special ops team, a true believer in evil, who therefore wants Angel dead. They have a standoff; the soldier delivers a speech about how he possesses the most powerful thing in the world: conviction. And Angel counters that there's one thing more powerful than conviction: mercy. Then he kicks the leader's shotgun so that it tilts upward, discharges, and blows the guy's head off. Blood spatters the walls. A convenient spec ops cowering nearby as witness says, "What happened to mercy?" And Angel replies, "You've just seen the last of it," before swishing his frock-coat-length suit jacket and stalking off.

Someone on the Watcher's Diary board said it reminded them of a line, "The quality of mercy is not Buffy," which I couldn't place in the series (possibly said by a Scooby, or even Giles, or someone evil), but it made me think I'd heard part of it before: "The quality of mercy is not ... "

So I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. It's from Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice," to be exact. A play I have never read. Someone named Portia says it -- someone I've heard of but don't know who she is ... how weird pop culture is, or maybe just my dilettante nature. It's like a soliloquy that maybe you would memorize, a la "To be or not to be," or "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." Except that a woman says it, so who would wanna memorize THAT? (Hah hah.) Also, this play is about Shylock, a Jew, and I think perhaps the merchant of the title. And maybe what she's saying isn't PC in context. I don't know, cuz I haven't read the play. But the words are intriguing. And here they are:

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy."

What has happened to mercy in our world? It seems burned to a cinder. This U.S. government has no concept of it -- not to other nations or to its own people. Bush & co. wage an unjust war on a convenient despot, throwing Iraq into turmoil and getting young American soldiers killed almost every day. Even though the war "ended" in May. No WMD, but he will never relent, and more of them and us will die.

Angry drivers on the L.A. streets show no mercy to each other. Someone makes an honest mistake or gets hung up in an intersection, and people won't even stop or slow down for one second to help out. The tow-truck driver comes to drag my car off to the mechanic, and drivers going up Laurel Canyon scream at us and curse because they have to slow down for one second. And I snap, and I start screaming too. Exhausting myself to the point of tears.

It's like, no one wants to see that the positions could so easily be reversed. You can say that the hijackers showed U.S. no mercy ... right. But is it justified to go attack countries because "someone must pay"? It reminds me of the Columbine High School shootings and how people wanted someone to pay, even though the kids who did it had already killed themselves.

Christianity -- and this is supposedly a "Christian" nation, First Amendment be damned -- teaches to "turn the other cheek," but America didn't do that. While proclaiming a new paradigm of border-less, non-national terrorism, we followed the old paradigm and attacked nations -- first Afghanistan, then Iraq. But, mysteriously, not Saudi Arabia, despite its ties to the terrorists. And we have nothing to show for it but a quagmire and a huge bill to rebuild another nation while ours falls into ruin, the people's quality of life suffers, everyone gets stupider and meaner and more narrow-minded and sooo easily duped.

All of the sympathy and goodwill we engendered after 9/11 vanished in a cloud of bombsmoke. People who said welcome to the club didn't necessarily mean it maliciously -- they were seeing our young nation learn a hard, painful lesson in globalism, or less charitably, reminding us that our actions as a nation have scarcely always been pure or honorable ... and there are consequences for the innocent citizens -- people who are supposed to be a part of the power, in a way few other people on earth can be. (If they choose to, which most people don't.)

Yet we, who are allegedly in control of our own destiny as a nation, rationalize and justify the suffering of people -- the Afghanis, the Iraqis -- who have so much less say in how they are governed or who governs them. Or, also, who follow different rules that mean as much to them as ours do to us. And where a lot of people, I still like to hope, abhor and regret the actions of our government and the needless death, maiming, destruction they have caused -- too many of us can't get our heads around the idea that those people, many of them, wished us no harm either. Sure, the Iraqis hate us now, but who WOULDN'T? Their nation is torn apart, chaos reigns. It's all our fault. Are they better off? Some of us have the arrogance to say so. Imagine.

And meanwhile this lack of mercy takes its toll here. No mercy for dealing with our own domestic disasters -- no mercy to the people sucked into the vortex of joblessness, homelessness. No mercy for the growing numbers of uninsured ... for the disadvantaged ... the under-educated. It s a bootstraps world indeed, except somebody seems to have cut the straps. And in the course of justice none of us should see salvation, indeed.

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