• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On The Killing In Georgia: A "Modern-Day Lynching"

May 2020

The phrase, “modern-day lynching”, I’m convinced, is one of those idiomatic peculiarities, an utterance unique to the strangeness of American life, of which we make far too liberal a use. In so doing, we not only re-awaken the vestigial terrors by which our nation’s conscience, so much the better, I’m glad to say, as it pertains to issues of race, is still haunted, but we risk diluting the phrase of the potency in which it was once so frightfully drenched. We enfeeble it by overusing it, and we render it limp and dry.

Just short of one year and a half ago, in the setting of Chicago’s tempestuously frigid streets, the actor Jussie Smollett claimed that he’d been targeted, verbally castigated, and, most distressingly of all, physically assaulted by two men veiled by the concealing shroud of a deep Midwestern night. The men by whom, based on the lucid memory of his own account, Smollett was so brutally confronted were Caucasian—a fact by which, it soon became clear, most observers of his story were chillingly startled though not, lamentable though it may be, exceedingly surprised. It seemed, yet again, that the grander sympathies of mankind, toward which we felt ourselves to have made such noble progress, were subordinated to the inextricable animosities of race.

These two barbaric and faceless men, atop whose heads rested not woven knit caps, as might be expected as the protective, sartorial measures of which that city’s unfathomable winds are demanding, but a couple of “Make America Great Again” hats of which those inconvenienced by the cold make such heated and fervid use, proceeded to humiliate the vulnerable and—judging by the peculiarity of his culinary choice at so early an hour—desperately hungry Smollett (he was carrying in his arm at the time of his assault at 2:00 AM a sandwich from a local Subway—of which, it might be added, his assailants were pitifully incapable of dispossessing him). These two dastardly men, of whose odious identities Smollett was so unwaveringly certain, proceeded to pour upon the black actor’s face a cup of bleach, before tossing around his neck a rope tied into the shape of a noose. The very fact of his survival was, if any there need be, proof of the presence of a divine and intervening hand. The fact that Smollett was alive, much less capable of retelling his tale, was a miracle about which later Hollywood scriptures would surely be written.

For many weeks thereafter, indeed, until the advent of a slightly more credible narrative in which, with greater confidence, the lot of us might place our stunned belief, Smollett’s attack was said to have been an example of a “modern-day lynching”. This phrase, which causes, merely with the repetition of my reading it, every one of the hairs on my spine to stand on their end, was tossed about indefatigably. Every news station repeated it, as if it were prescribed mantra. No clearer example might be conceived. It was the explanation, indeed the only explanation, to which most in the commentariat subscribed. More than that, it was a conclusion, at the time, apparently soberly made, to which none would dare offer an alternative, much less a rebuttal. The facts, such as they were presented, seemed inarguably clear.

Of course, as we soon were to discover, this was no “modern-day lynching”, but a fabulously constructed ruse. It might’ve been self-asphyxiation or the act of intra-personal violence, but to Smollett’s life, there was no external threat. It was the self-indulgent outcry of an actor to whom, in the weakness and insecurity of his own opinion, insufficient attention had been paid. It was the elaborate deceit of a pathologic liar, an egotistical charlatan for whom, if only to advance the middling prestige of his sputtering television career, no trickery was too extraordinary. Nevertheless, the phrase, “modern-day lynching”—with its farcical application in this particular case—was too quickly and liberally used (as it’s been many times before and since).

What, then, are we to think when the phrase actually does apply? How are we to respond, a population increasingly desensitized to the term, when a “modern-day lynching” actually does transpire, as it very likely seems to have in the state of Georgia but a few months ago?

There, in the town of Brunswick, a coastal city not far from that of Jacksonville, a man by the name of Ahmaud Arbery chose as his method of exercise a run on a temperate Sunday afternoon. The neighborhood through which he jogged, in whose street he was eventually killed, was one, despite the later testimony of his murderers, unacquainted with criminal activity of any serious kind. Arbery seems not to have altered this peaceful and hospitable trend. The only action, it seems, by which the community’s suspicions were aroused on this fatal day was his harmless inspection of a waterfront house. Being that it was in the early stages of its building and development, the house stood as a fledgling structure of which all who gazed upon it took notice, a new addition to the area’s tranquil landscape about which any innocent passerby might be equally curious.

Arbery, whose irrepressible curiosity, if not the immutable pigmentation of his skin, provoked to an armed confrontation the rage of two local white men—a father and son by the name of McMichael. After tarrying a while beneath the vacant archways of the unfinished house, Arbery continued along the predetermined path of his jog. He did so until reaching the fatal impediment by which his run, soon to be his life, was obstructed. Ahead of him in the middle of the road, clearly situated to detain him from the completion of his jog, awaited the McMichael boys. Every indication points to the idea that the McMicahels were not especially in the mood to talk. They appeared to be of the “shoot first, question later” ilk. Theirs was a presence, at once corpulent and pugnacious, away from which, despite Arbery’s nimblest efforts, he simply couldn’t run.

As if a caricature drawn from a Jim-Crow-Georgia scene, the likes by which a northerner’s unfriendly conception of the backward south is so often and unjustly colored, the white McMichaels were perched atop a pickup truck waiting for the arrival of the black Arbery. Guns in hand, they lingered about their vehicle behind which, in a truck similar to their own, a friend followed with a recording device—on which this impending crime, to the great shock and horror of the nation, was to be captured and replayed. The elder McMichael, lately retired of the county’s police force, stood in the bed of the truck with a pistol in hand. He seemed to be of the dangerous opinion that the role of police officer, even in his retirement, ought to carry with it the honorific of emeritus, by which he might further justify and prolong his extra-legal, vigilante career.His son, aged thirty years, and with no such prior law enforcement credential, stood on the street with a shotgun. The two were armed not for conversation, but for the premature taking of a life.

Endeavoring to circumvent what looked to be an unwholesome, though perhaps unavoidable interaction, Arbery attempted to dodge the passenger side of the truck. As he did so, a shot rang out, after which, in the escalating heat of the confrontation, the younger McMichael and the wounded Arbery were desperately engaged. It was, expectedly, a one-sided affair. Shorn, at the most inconvenient time, of the fantasy of superhuman strength about which, in comics, we read, and the immortality by which our Marvel heroes are reliably preserved, Arbery was unable to disarm the younger McMichael of his gun. Two shots later, Arbery was dead. Prone on the pavement, white shirt beginning to seep with red, Arbery gasped through the pores of the cement atop which he laid the stifled oxygen of his final, metallic breath. The smoke of the shotgun dissipated in the air, as a cloud gathered, once again, over the conscience of an injured country’s damaged soul.

This situation, about which, with all of its previously withheld and gruesome details, the country is just now learning, is an example, indeed, hopefully the last example, of a “modern-day lynching”. I hope, forevermore, the term is used only by those who fabricate its act. I’ll suffer a Smollett, if it would save me, for his family an Arbery. Let the term be abused, if only its actual victims might be saved.

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