By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006; C01
Ah, Kenneth Lay of Enron: America hardly knew you before your trial, but learned after your big-hammer jury conviction that you had left countless suckers broke, employees cheated and stockholders betrayed.
There were also the electricity customers swindled, along the lines of Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch USA, who wanted to leave a night light on without sending Enron their whole Social Security checks for the privilege.
Many people had looked forward to knowing more about Ken Lay, especially how he liked prison.
But now that he's died of a heart attack in the luxury of his Colorado getaway while awaiting sentencing for his crimes, none of his victims will be able to contemplate that he's locked away in a place that makes the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel look like Hawaii; that he might be spending long nights locked in a cell with a panting tattooed monster named Sumo, a man of strange and constant demands; and long days in the prison laundry or jute mill or license plate factory, gibbering with anguish as fire-eyed psychopaths stare at him for unblinking hours while they sharpen spoons into jailhouse stilettos.
He will not be ground into gray jailhouse paste by listening to the eardrum-scarring symphony of 131-decibel despair that is the Muzak of penitentiaries, by gagging on the dead prison air, by choking on the deader food, by watching the blue sky taunt him with freedom over the exercise yard, and by feeling his nervous system rent by the cruel grenades of memories -- explosions of nostalgia for the days when he knew he'd be swanning forever through the comfy laps and cool lawns of luxury and infinite possibility. Sweet Gulfstreams through sweet skies, the pools, the jewels, the Maybach limousines, a life in which he didn't just pimp his ride, he pimped the entire world as he knew it.
Actually, some folks who got the news, the particularly enlightened and civilized ones, are glad they won't have to know that Kenneth Lay is going through these agonies. They may even reflect that if they'd known him personally, they would have known a wonderful father, husband and friend. Isn't that what people always say about people like Ken Lay? And shouldn't people always try to think the best of everyone?
Yes, they should, but so many people may well have responded to the news of Lay's untimely death by feeling cheated, by saying that death wasn't good enough for him, by sensing a frustrated craving for revenge burning in their backbrains like a fire in a tire dump.
Is it possible that a micron below the surface of our liberal and enlightened beliefs lurks savagery? Was the French Enlightenment wrong about our essential goodness, and were the medieval churchmen right about our innate depravity?
We should consider these things in days to come, so that Ken Lay may not have died in vain.
Meanwhile, for those who are baffled by the strange and vicious outrage that greeted news of Lay's passing, at least among some people, there is a story, an old story, a very old joke in fact, that seeks to explain it.
It gets told with many variations, of which the following is one:
Three anthropologists are taken captive by a cruel and remote tribe.
Their chief comes to their hut and informs the anthropologists that they have a choice: death or chi-chi.
The first anthropologist says: "Chi-chi, of course."
There ensues three days of screams, moans, pleadings, whimpers, then silence.
The chief comes to the hut to speak with the second anthropologist. He picks chi-chi, too.
Three more days of shrieks and begging.
The chief comes to the third anthropologist.
"Which do you choose, death or chi-chi?"
"I've heard too much," says the anthropologist. "I'll take death."
"A very wise choice," says the chief, who then adds with a sad smile: "But first, chi-chi."
That's why some of us are disappointed to know of the death of Ken Lay. Depraved as we may be, what we really hoped was that crimes of his super-size sort might bring him just a little chi-chi.