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Hunting the Escaped

A part of me hopes the convicted killers find peace on the run

Anne Roiphe
June 23, 2015
 Andrew Burton/Getty Images
A U.S. Marshall and his dog search for escaped convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat outside Dannemora, New York, June 16, 2015. Andrew Burton/Getty Images
 Andrew Burton/Getty Images
A U.S. Marshall and his dog search for escaped convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat outside Dannemora, New York, June 16, 2015. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The two escaped convicts, Richard Matt and David Sweat, from Dannemora Prison, are murderers for sure. I wonder then why I am of two minds about their capture which might be soon since they have been spotted near a cabin in nearby woods. The place was tested for DNA and a bloody sock has told its story or so the newscaster tells us. There is nothing sympathetic about the faces of these men. The eyes lack kindness or curiosity. They look brutal and scary.

The woman they involved in their escape plans looks worn and witless—at least as she is marched before the cameras—as though some terrible misbegotten romance washed across her life, bleaching away her all-too-strong wish to be loved or to be lovable. There is something about bad men in prison that makes some women weak at the knees. Some female is always wanting to marry a death row inmate or pledge fidelity to someone locked away for a chopping up a body.

At the risk of exposing my own liberal confusions, I am wondering why, I am just a bit hoping that these men make it somewhere, away, to a free life. I am just a bit pulling against the thousands of troupers and police and big black dogs that are assembled on the roads. I am not entirely happy to see the army in pursuit. I want them caught and I want them free.

What is that strange voice within that runs with the hunted and not the hunter? I think it may be that the phalanx of guns, of big boots, and matching hats brings back images of Nazis tramping through forests, looking for Jews hiding in the woods. It may be that the stamp of boots reminds me of the Cossacks approaching a Jewish town in which the Jews have fled to the nearby woods hushing their babies, their prayers mumbled under an uncaring sky. It may be that no matter how vile the criminal, they are alone against the mob, the state, the crowd and I can’t help whispering to him, run, run.

Maybe I carry images of escaping slaves and the slave owners and the local sheriffs and the dogs barking and the boots stamping to the river’s edge. Hurry, I think, don’t stop to drink the water, keep moving.

Of course I want Sweat and Matt out of the world the rest of us inhabit. Of course they deserve their fate. The loved ones of those they murdered deserve peace of mind and the rest of us should not be afraid of killers mingling with the lunch time crowd at MacDonald’s. So the rational side of my mind says. The other side keeps calling out, run, run.

This is a diaspora view. Certainly a diaspora memory. It is an identification that cannot rest easily with the interests of the state because the state has been so often the persecutor, the murderer, the hunter.

I also identify with the fox not the British gentleman galloping across the meadow. And from this I have always formed a political position. It is a vote for mercy when mercy has disappeared from the land.

To critics who would say this is absurd. You are urging onward evil men who would destroy you and your children without a thought. I say you are right. I want them caught as much as I don’t want them caught. I want them returned to prison for the rest of their lives.

And yet I can imagine an ending in which they escape to the far northern end of Canada where they find work on a fishing boat and they live by the sea. There they learn to respect human life and the rhythms of nature, and they find some way towards something like God or a woman who waits for them, and then they return to the human fold.

Don’t say it. I know that is a daydream without a shred of reality. This is not the way a grown up woman should think. And yet this Jewish woman, if honest, admits that the hunted and the chased evoke her worry, and the power of the state is not always benign, and that the day I loose my faint wish that these convicts or the next ones escape captivity is the day I loose my Jewish memory. So then I have to tolerate both the twinge of fear I feel for the escapees and the hatred I have for them as killers and thugs.

There is a possibility here that personal guilt—the touch of blame all daughters of Eve carry, the knowledge of my not always kind and sometimes furious brain as it reveals itself in nightmares and bad wishes—prompts this identification with the escaping criminal. It is the Jew in me that knows I am not as innocent as I seem and might myself be running, bloody sock and all, through the pines and evergreens ahead of barking dogs.

Anne Roiphe is a novelist and a journalist.