The most popular plots in American horror movies are about the "undead" - deceased people who won't stay dead. Last month, New Mexico's Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson announced, "If there is evidence, I will consider pardoning Billy the Kid." There is a growing controversy in that state as to whether a noted mass murderer and cop killer of the Old West should be granted a posthumous pardon.
The issue does not revolve around whether the Kid killed 21 men, as legend suggests, or the more likely number of six or nine, but rather relates to an unfulfilled promise of a long-dead territorial governor.
A posthumous pardon is granted to correct a historical miscarriage of justice.
A promised 1879 pardon of Henry McCarty (aka "Billy the Kid") by then-governor of New Mexico Territory Lew Wallace (former Union Civil War general and author of "Ben Hur") was never delivered; this is the apparent crux of the current controversy.
In 1881 (two years after the undelivered pardon) the Kid was held in a courthouse in Mesilla, New Mexico Territory, after being sentenced to hang for the murder of a sheriff. He escaped and killed two guards in the process. It would be reasonable to think, then, that the Kid's escape and murders after the non-delivered pardon would obviate any later discussion of posthumous pardons. Not so.
Because the Kid committed murders after the pardon was offered by Wallace (but not delivered), the Kid still would have been subject to the noose. This must raise reasonable questions about Mr. Richardson's purpose in publicly considering a pardon of Billy the Kid.
Certainly there must be matters on the governor's agenda more pressing and worthy of his official attentions than a dead murderer?
As we live in a confused and unpleasant time of change, it is not so surprising that an American political leader should try to effect change upon the dead when doing so upon the living seems so much more difficult and unappreciated.
Fiddling with history, whether it is a footnote (as in this case) or involves more serious matters, is not about history at all - it is about the future. Altering the past changes the future, as such alterations require that the past be viewed in a different light. This kind of change is a display of power.
The correction of past perceived transgressions or errors is a loaded and dangerous business and should be undertaken only in the most extreme, obvious and meritorious of circumstances.
Rehabilitation of the reputation of a dead murderer diminishes the seriousness of his deeds, minimizes the suffering of victims and families (and descendants) and provides the killer with a level of posthumous attention and legitimization that is almost universally unmerited.
Henry McCarty's victims were real people who should not be ignored in this entirely unnecessary pardon controversy.
If the pardon controversy is simply a matter of Mr. Richardson being a Billy the Kid buff and inserting himself into a story he loves, the pardon is ill-advised and should be canceled. If it is about something else - about a politician's plans for a legacy - that also is reason to cancel the pardon discussions.
The argument that a historical injustice must be righted in this case is hollow because the Kid's post-pardon murders negate his worthiness for any posthumous action on his behalf.
We should tread carefully among the detritus of our past and not so readily bring the dead back to life, so to speak. Manipulation of the past has long been a red line that most political leaders would not cross. Any reassessment of historical events and personages, especially where official actions and statements are concerned, should be opposed if they are not completely and verifiably legitimate and worthy.
Billy the Kid's crimes were vicious and unpardonable; perhaps then-Gov. Wallace thought as much.
The inability to tell the difference between pressing and crucial matters of governance and distracting historical footnotes better left for calmer times - or ignored - is indicative of a failure of leadership, context and vision.
The most disturbing films and books in American popular culture are about the dead who haunt the living. History's central lesson is that it is immutable; it cannot be changed. Billy the Kid ought to remain on the screen and in his grave.
Originally published in the Washington Times.