For me, personally, the final evidence of the guilt of British criminal Hanratty, of anarchist Nicola Sacco. and of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg - however different the circumstances - have been a personal shock. They are the undeniable proof that people can lie even in the face of death and eternity, that claims of innocence from the scaffold are no more reliable than from any other point. The case of Sacco's fellow-accused Bartolomeo Vanzetti seems even darker: he was probably himself innocent, but he knew that Sacco was guilty as Hell, and he deliberately died with a lie on his lips, for the sake of his imagined revolution. (And to add a further taste of futility to his false sacrifice, the historical fact is that the only party who benefited from his and Sacco's executions were the Communists, who had organized all the protests against their executions, and who were sworn enemies of Vanzetti's Anarchists and would have murdered him a good deal more nastily if he had ever fallen into their hands.) But perhaps the most significant of these is the lie of Hanratty, because that had nothing of the ideological justifications of Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs. Hanratty was not fighting for any "cause", however bad: he was a rapist and murderer with no ulterior motives. And he declared his innocence right to the point of death with a passionate intensity that deceived generations of activists including myself.
I am listening to Joan Baez singing Johnny Cash's magnificent anthem to America, "City of New Orleans". It is one of her best performances and one of the greatest pieces of popular music ever composed. It is not even about the tormented city, just about a train named after it, and yet for some reason it is affecting me more about the tragedy of Katrina than anything I have seen or heard. Perhaps because Johnny Cash himself was a product - the greatest product, perhaps - of the rural south, perhaps because the song has something consciously valedictory about the landscape it describes, but I have tears in my eyes. God keep America; she is, in the end, a part of all of us, and all that we have to complain of her is dwarved by what we owe her.