Thomas Cahill: Civilization on Trial

Thomas Cahill author of How the Irish Saved Civilization

By Kara Rota, Contributor
August / September 2009

I first encountered Thomas Cahill in the reading requirements for ninth grade history, where Mr. Dachille’s designation of Cahill’s book The Gifts of the Jews as a substitute for the dry textbooks to which I was accustomed instantly granted him canonical stature in my mind. And for good reason: Cahill’s accessible and fascinating takes on the histories of the Irish, the Jews, Jesus Christ, the Greeks, and the Middle Ages (Volumes I-V of his Hinges of History series) have, besides reaching bestseller lists in the U.S. and beyond, reconditioned us as to how we ought to be learning and thinking about the history of the Western world. When I speak with Thomas Cahill about his most recent book, A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green, he elucidates the continuity between his approaches to both ancient history and contemporary issues. “I have to admit that when I was in high school, I didn’t have very many really good history courses, nor did I have very many in college,” says Cahill. “What I really loved was literature, in English and in other languages, and I realized subsequently that I got much of my history through literature. So when I began to write [the Hinges of History books], I really did write them through the prism of the literature of the time. I think if you want to know what warfare was like in 8th-century B.C. Greece, you should read Homer rather than some historian, and I think you could go through everything that way. If there is literature on the subject, it will give you a much fuller picture than will common historians. . . . Literature may be very ancient and it may be very different from our sensibility in certain ways, but the human body has never changed; we still laugh and we still cry the same way that people did many, many centuries ago. And because of that we can still connect with them. So that’s what I feel I’m doing in the Hinges of History series, or what I hope to be doing. I’m never trying to come up with some new theory on some particular period. I base myself on the sort of middle-of-the-road academic historians, and at the same time, what I really want to do is answer the question, ‘What would it have been like to have been there? How would it have felt to be part of this period?’ I think that can be done much better through literature than through what we commonly think of as history.”

Born one of six children in an Irish-American family, Cahill was raised in the Bronx and educated by Jesuits, studying ancient Greek and Latin, skills that allow him to create his own translations for his research and to consider ancient authors’ original intentions. He graduated from Fordham University, where he explored medieval philosophy, scripture and theology and continued studying Greek and Latin literature, earning a BA in classical literature and philosophy as well as a pontifical degree in philosophy. He earned an MFA in film and dramatic literature from Columbia University and studied scripture at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, rounding out an education whose breadth and depth reflects both his focus on the importance of narratives and his Irish Catholic background.

While Cahill’s latest book is a departure from the Hinges of History series, he feels that his underlying goals in it are the same. “Underneath it all, what I’m very often trying to figure out in the books of history is, what is civilization, and what makes for civilization? And what makes for its opposite, which is really barbarism? What are the works of civilization and what are the works of barbarism, or of tearing down civilization? I think that in every society and every culture, those are good questions to ask, because in every society and every culture there are forces that go in opposite directions. There are the forces of peace and there are the forces of war, there are the forces of mercy and the forces of cruelty. And they operate everywhere; they’re never completely absent, either in the best culture or the worst. In our case, as Americans, I think we have failed to notice the cruelty that we inflict with the death penalty, and how unjust our application of it is and always will be.”

A Saint on Death Row is the story of Dominique Green, a young African American man born in Houston, Texas whose childhood was fraught with episodes of violence and discrimination that led to his arrest at age eighteen and execution by lethal injection twelve years later. Dominique’s mother was abusive and alcoholic, and he took it upon himself to care for his two younger brothers and serve as a buffer between them and her physical aggression, despite the fact that he had already suffered incredibly in his short life. At age seven, Dominique was raped by a priest at his Catholic school, St. Mary’s, and found no recourse as his father descended into drug addiction and his mother turned to prostitution and began to treat her children with neglect at best, outright violence at worst. His mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic, a fact that his attorneys failed to mention when she testified against him in court, and attempted to shoot Dominique with a pistol on two occasions. He and his younger brother, Marlon, were thrown out of their mother’s house when Dominique was fifteen, and he moved the two of them into a storage shed together, selling drugs because, as he later wrote, “I didn’t have the nerve to be a burglar . . . the will to be a pimp, or the hate to be a hired killer. I was just a kid trying to find a way for me and my siblings.”
“What we really do as a society,” says Cahill, “is that we pay no attention to those children. We don’t intervene, we don’t rescue them, we just wait until they’re old enough to incarcerate and then we put them in prison. So I think we are failing doubly at both ends. Are we so uncreative, are we so lacking in insight and ability that we cannot come up with better ways of intervening in the lives of abused children? That’s who ends up in prison: abused children who have grown up enough to be incarcerated. That’s who’s there.”

In 1992, when he was eighteen, Dominique was arrested by Houston police along with three other young men and later charged with shooting and killing a man in an armed robbery gone wrong. The others testified against Dominique in exchange for the state dropping their capital murder charges; their testimony was the only evidence against him. Confident in his innocence, Dominique refused a similar deal. The only white male in the group, despite admitting to being present during the robbery and murder and even sharing the proceeds, was never even charged; instead, he was categorized as a “citizen informant.”

Witnesses chosen by Dominique’s court-appointed lawyer to testify during his trial included a psychologist known to believe that race is a valid indication of propensity to future violence. Although no proof stood against him except the testimony of the other three most likely suspects, Dominique was found guilty of capital murder and, five days later, sentenced to death. Says Cahill, “There is in Texas—I don’t want to ascribe this to all Texans, or anything remotely like that—but there is in Texas a desire for revenge and bloodlust that is really quite extraordinary. Not just in the number of executions [(438 since 1976—the runner-up, Virginia, can claim 103)], but in how little is given to poor kids in trouble both before and after their conviction. They’re assigned lawyers at the last minute who don’t really prepare cases. Of course they’re convicted, and they end up in prison where there is no mitigation. In these prisons there are no educational opportunities for them to grow. By the time they’re back out on the street again, if they’re ever put back on the street again, they’re just better criminals then they were when they went in.” Unfortunately for Dominique, he was never released from prison after his conviction at age eighteen. However, he eventually turned his death row sentence into the greatest educational opportunity of his life, not only for himself but also for those whose lives he touched inside and out of the prison walls.

One such individual was Sheila Murphy, a retired Irish Catholic judge from Chicago, who heard about Dominique’s struggle at a 1999 conference of Americans working to end the death penalty. Sheila, who would several years later introduce Cahill to Dominique Green and his story, agreed immediately to represent Dominique in his final appeals despite the fact that she would have to commute from Chicago to Houston, had never handled a client who was sentenced to death, and was in semiretirement. Sheila’s presence was ultimately one of the most positive forces in Dominique’s life, as she gained his trust while telling him about her family and depicting a warm and fiercely loving parent-child relationship that was completely alien to him. Sheila’s son Patrick also developed a close friendship with Dominique, and Cahill describes the Murphys as Dominique’s surrogate family. “Sheila is a very Irish personality; she’s quick to emotion. I think that helped her tremendously with Dominique. I think she gave him exactly what he needed. The one thing he had never had, and there was no way for him to make up for on his own, was that he had never really had a mother. And she became his mother. She didn’t succeed in saving him, but she did succeed in becoming his mother, which is a great—almost, I think, biblical—encounter.”
One of the most moving sections of the book chronicles Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s visit to Dominique in prison in March 2004. A personal hero of Dominique’s, the Archbishop spoke with him for an hour and a half, blessed him and told reporters there about his belief that the death penalty is “not a deterrent” but “an obscenity that brutalizes,” especially in cases like Dominique’s where guilt has not been proven sufficiently but ultimately in all situations. Tutu called it “the ultimate giving up, because our faith is a faith of ever-new beginnings.” Says Cahill, “In that passage, [Tutu] was not dealing with the question of whether the person is guilty or innocent. But assuming their guilt, you cut off the possibility of rehabilitation. If you’re just saying, ‘Well, he did it, now we’re going to kill him,’ you don’t give the person the chance to reexamine his own life. Of course, you may do so if it takes long enough to execute him, which is certainly what happened to Dominique. He had plenty of time to reexamine his own life. But I think Tutu nonetheless has a very good point. I think our whole prison system should be set up with a view towards rehabilitating people rather than simply punishing them.”

Cahill emphasizes, “There are no good arguments in favor of the death penalty,” noting specifically that it costs significantly more to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life and that one in every eight prisoners who are executed are later found to be innocent. He believes that the death penalty has continued in America for so long due to the fact that very few of those with the power to fight against it are personally affected. This is not just a book but also a call to action, a vehement challenge to Americans that we become informed about the practices and policies carried out in our country, in our name. “It wasn’t too long ago that two-thirds of all Americans were in favor of the death penalty, but that’s been going down pretty quickly. I think that a lot of that has to do with the fact that—well, do you know anyone on death row? Any of your friends and relatives on death row? No, nor are mine, except for Dominique and others that I’ve met since then, but in my ordinary course of contact I would not come in touch with such people. Nor would you, nor would any of us. People who buy and read books belong to a different category. It means that we have a certain level of education; it means that we have a certain level of economic security that ensures that we would never find ourselves in such circumstances. If you or one of your siblings or children got in terrible trouble with the law, the first thing that you would do is hire a good attorney, which would mean that the person in trouble would never end up in Dominique’s circumstances. The only reason he was there was because he didn’t have the resources to hire a good attorney.”

On October 26, 2004, Dominique Green was executed by lethal injection. Those who opposed his death included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a global community of personal and political supporters, and the Lastrapes family: the widow and children of the man Dominique was accused of killing twelve years earlier, who had since outspokenly opposed the racially motivated scapegoating of Dominique and pleaded for his death sentence to be revoked. Despite the hard work of these advocates as well as Cahill and Sheila Murphy, the unjust Texas justice system prevailed. When I ask Cahill how he retains any optimism in American democracy in the face of Dominique’s tragic and appalling end, he replies, “We can change anytime we want to! We’re not incapable of change. We’re certainly at last moving in a better direction. We now at least have a president who understands that the world is larger than the United States. . . . We have very long prison sentences compared to any of the European countries. We do very odd things. We have more people in prison per capita than, I think, anywhere in the world except China. That’s pretty amazing. So can we change? Of course we can. Are there people who are trying to institute that change? Yes, and the whole end of the book is pointing the reader in the direction of movements and organizations that are working for this change, which any human being who wants to can be a part of. And that’s where the hope lies.”

Thomas Cahill is the author of the Hinges of History® series. He is currently working on its sixth book, which covers the Renaissance and Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, and planning for the seventh and final book, which will discuss the 18th and 19th centuries, from the Enlightenment to the establishment of democracies, particularly American democracy. He has taught at Queens College, Fordham University, and Seton Hall University, served as the North American education correspondent for the Times of London, and was for many years a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Prior to retiring to write full-time, he was Director of Religious Publishing at Doubleday for six years. He and his wife, Susan, divide their time between New York and Rome.

One Response to “Thomas Cahill: Civilization on Trial”

  1. Mike Carson says:

    Is there going to be a 7th book in the Hinges of History series? I was under the impression that Mr. Cahill was working on a 7th book to complete the series.

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