Editorial: Elaine Brown’s Delayed Apology

The post-conviction, pre-sentencing apology from criminal to victim has become something of a courtroom ritual, and, as with many rituals, it often appears pro-forma rather than heartfelt.

In this context, the apology Elaine Brown offered recently to her one-time neighbors in Plainfield was refreshing in its apparent sincerity and unusual in the depth of self-examination it exhibited.

Elaine Brown, of course, was one-half of a husband and wife team of tax resisters and anti-government activists who, from their Center of Town Road home, engaged in a nine-month-long armed standoff with federal authorities in 2007. Both Elaine and Ed Brown are now serving long federal prison sentences and, given that they are in their 70s, are unlikely to return to town.

As staff writer Sarah Brubeck reported last Saturday, Brown’s letter of apology was dated April 20 and bore the address of the federal prison in Aliceville, Ala., where she is serving a 35-year sentence. In it, she writes that she and her husband launched their anti-government crusade believing it would advance the cause of justice, but, “Regrettably our vision was narrowed to our ‘cause’ and failed to take into account the impact we were having on others in the town, especially our neighbors on Center of Town Road, and also . . . the Plainfield police and the town administrators. We failed to realize the fear, anxiety and impact we were causing these good people.

“Now, seven years later, I realize the wrong I have done to you all. One cannot do the wrong thing for the right reason.”

Unfortunately, true believers of all stripes do the wrong thing for the right reason all the time, because true belief presupposes certainty that one is right and that nothing is more important than the cause that has been embraced. Having had seven years to reflect on what transpired, Brown has apparently come to the realization that while ends matter, so do means. This is not exactly a stunning insight , but certainly a better-late-than-never sort of epiphany.

Unexpected as Brown’s apology was, the reaction of neighbors interviewed by Brubeck was more so. Despite the drama, the couple’s cache of weapons and explosives, the law enforcement presence on their road, and the increasingly weird and scary band of fellow travelers the Browns attracted over the long summer of 2007, the neighbors seem to remember the couple — there is no other word for it — fondly. In fact, they seem to regard the Browns’ downfall more in sorrow than in anger. One told Brubeck that she was pleased to see Elaine Brown’s letter, which was published in the June issue of PlainFacts, a monthly local publication. “It’s nice to have a remembrance of them,” she said. Another, who said that the Browns were pleasant neighbors, thought it a “dreadful shame” that they exchanged their life in Plainfield for life in prison.

Of course, it is important not to forget that the Browns were playing a dangerous game, one that might well have ended in catastrophe for them, for law enforcement officers and for the people who lived nearby. But the capacity to ask forgiveness and the capacity to grant it are among the most genuinely attractive of human qualities. And the fact that Elaine Brown has come to see how misguided she was perhaps indicates that her years in prison will not be entirely wasted.