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An Inspiring Story's Loose Ends

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page A23

It's no surprise that the tragic courthouse slayings in Atlanta have drawn a swarm of Hollywood producers to the hub of the South. The story is simple, powerful and profound: a rampage of pure evil followed by an act of pure redemption.

Brian Nichols, after allegedly killing four innocent people, forces his way at gunpoint into the life of Ashley Smith, a young woman whose look of blonde, damsel-in-distress vulnerability could have been ordered up by a casting director. Smith turns out to be something else -- a tough girl from the wrong side of the tracks who also knows what it's like to be on the wrong side of the law.

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She has a record for shoplifting and other petty crimes. She's a widow -- her murdered husband died in her arms. She has a 5-year-old daughter, but not the wherewithal to care for her, so the girl lives with Smith's aunt.

Smith talks to Nichols about her faith in God, and she touches something inside a man with nothing left to lose. She reads to him from "The Purpose-Driven Life." She tells him that God must have brought him to that apartment; that no matter what he's done, his life still has a purpose. She makes him pancakes. Finally, the most dangerous man in America just lets her go, and when the police arrive, he surrenders.

The story is inspiring, but a couple of things have been nagging at me, so I thought I'd share them and maybe they'll nag at you, too.

First, there's the question of race. Nichols is black and Smith is white. Race seemed irrelevant, since Nichols allegedly killed both black and white, in an enlightened city largely run by black officials. It was easy to dismiss the unbidden, illegitimate image -- once used to "justify" lynchings -- of the powerful black predator threatening the delicate flower of white womanhood.

But according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which interviewed a law enforcement official who witnessed the first statement Nichols gave after his arrest, Nichols's alleged killings was fueled by racial anger.

While in custody on a rape charge, Nichols apparently seethed at the fact that so many of the other inmates were black. "He called it systematic slavery," the newspaper quoted the official as saying. Nichols reportedly felt like a "soldier" while killing his victims with military precision.

So there's the question I can't answer. Nichols, educated at a Catholic school, had no history of violence before the rape charge, on which a jury couldn't agree. When you look at him, you don't see a beast; you see a clean-cut young man with intelligent, sensitive eyes. Will we ever find out why race was the first thing out of his mouth? Or do we think it even matters?

My other question begins with God and His design. "The Purpose-Driven Life," by pastor and evangelist Rick Warren, has sold more than 21 million copies; its point is that God knows why we're here, that God knows what we are to do with our time on Earth.

Smith started her reading to Nichols where she had left off the night before, with a passage that begins, "We serve God by serving others." Perhaps, she told him, he was destined "to go to jail and save many more people than you killed" by preaching to other inmates and bringing them to God.

It's a comfort to think that. But given what Nichols is accused of doing -- killing a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent, all in cold blood -- I think it's safe to assume that if he's convicted, he'll face the death penalty. Maybe he'll plead insanity, but let's suppose that he's found guilty and sentenced to die.

If Smith was right and Nichols's purpose is to bring other inmates to God, then the state of Georgia probably will cut that mission short. Or is his ultimate purpose to die, so that his death will be an example? If so, an example to whom, and does that make him some kind of martyr? Or does what remains of his life have a purpose after all?

I can't make sense of it. We are a nation that believes in capital punishment and also believes in the basic Christian concept of redemption. Try as I might, I can't reconcile those two ideas. So there's my last nagging question: Which do we value more?

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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