‘This American Life’—6 Episodes That Kick Ass for Justice

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Ira Glass knows a thing or two about storytelling. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Jun 1, 2012· 3 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

I’ve listened to a lot of This American Life over the years, but this week’s episode “What Happened at Dos Erres” is a drop-everything, must-listen show, even by the This American Life’s high standards.

“What Happened At Dos Erres” is a sweeping story of a massacre that killed more than 250 villagers in a remote Guatemalan jungle in 1982, and the slow, 30-year process of bringing the criminals responsible to justice. But the broadcast contains so much more—unthinkable violence, betrayal, mistaken identity, forgiveness and redemption—that it’s impossible to do the episode justice with words.

I don’t want to steal any more of its thunder; so follow this link for the full aural experience.

The story hinges on the excellent and exhaustive reportage of ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella, Ana Arana of Fundación MEPI, and independent journalist Habiba Nosheen—you can find their coverage on ProPublica here.

Thanks to the efforts of these journalists and mounting international pressure, Guatemala is finally acknowledging former dictator Efrain Rios Montt’s role in the deaths of more than 200,000 people during his 1980s “scorched earth” campaign. Last week, Guatemala ruled that Montt, who seized power shortly before the Dos Erres massacre in a military coup, will be eligible to face a second trial on genocide charges for that massacre. As Sandra Hernandez wrote in the L.A. Times, the fact that the 85-year-old former untouchable is facing prosecution after decades have elapsed is “extraordinary.”

Admittedly, few things get me going more than seeing justice served—I’ve watched too many reruns of Law & Order not to have it in my blood. So here are five more of my favorite This American Life episodes.

All of them showcase a miscarriage of justice and what happens when the bad guys finally pay the price.

Episode 84: Harold (originally aired 11.21.97)

If you’re older than, say, 30, the ’80s may not seem so long ago. But looking back at Harold Washington’s 1983 campaign to become the first black mayor of Chicago, it’s astonishing to see how much the racial climate has changed—and how much it hasn’t. “Harold” is a story not only of overcoming overwhelming hate and prejudice, but also of inspiration: Barack Obama moved to Chicago in large part because of Washington’s election. When the future president ran for the Oval Office in 2008, he hired Washington’s old campaign manager, David Axelrod.

Episode 460: Retraction (originally aired 3.16.12)

TakePart has talked a lot about the Foxconn injustices. So has Mike Daisy, a New York storyteller, who wrote a one-man show based around his visit to the factories. The only problem is that Daisy wasn’t entirely truthful about his accounts. Here, Ira Glass takes Daisy to task on breaking the trust between journalist and audience, leading to many unsatisfying answers and some of the most uncomfortable silences I’ve heard on radio.

Episode 210: Perfect Evidence (originally aired 4.19.02)

Few things are more horrifying than the thought of spending life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. And yet, DNA evidence shows us with disturbing regularity just how often this happens, even when everyone involved has the best intentions. But everyone doesn’t always have the best intentions. This story of two teenagers framed by police for a murder they didn’t commit, while ultimately leading to their freedom after 15 years, raises more disturbing questions about our justice system than it gives reassuring answers.

Episode 204: 81 Words (originally aired 1.18.02)

We’re not out of the woods yet on gay marriage, but the recent triumphs wouldn’t have been possible without the work of the trailblazers that came before. In the early 1970s, one set of those trailblazers was a group of closeted homosexual psychiatrists, who quietly pushed for the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to declassify its 81-word definition of homosexuality as sexual deviance, using subtlety and science to sway public opinion (hard to believe, I know).

Episode 437: Old Boy Network (originally aired 6.03.11)

If there’s a place where Mad Men-like sexism still exists, it’s a small hospital in Kermit, Texas. When two nurses decide to take action against a doctor putting patients in danger, they’re not only fired, but they’re also charged with harassment and face up to 10 years in prison. It’s a harrowing story of the extraordinary lengths to not break the trust between doctor and patient, even when to the detriment of patients that trust is a dangerous illusion.

Episode 363: Enforcers (originally aired 9.12.08)

With international laws governing the Internet still in its infancy, bandits that run the infamous “Nigerian” email scams are notoriously difficult to catch. Naturally, three guys with a lot of time on their hands decide to turn the tables and bait the baiter. But as their fun and games get increasingly dangerous, we start to question whether justice is being served, and if the bullied aren’t becoming the bullies.

Heard it all? Let us know what your favorite This American Life episode was in the COMMENTS.