It is quite nice, this safe position we occupy at the breakfast table. We are safe from witnessing the pain of the condemned’s family, the terrorized children, the old mother who sits alone with no one to hold her hand while the state murders her child. We are not required to consider the lawyers who fought for the accused until they fell, who lost and who are tortured with guilt for having failed him. A certain righteousness surrounds us like a dark, macabre halo. We have joined the mob of inquisitors from afar, the breakfast club executioners, and we are safe both from the condemned and from ourselves. But we are killers just the same, we, the avowed advocates for the death penalty.
None of the European countries embrace it. Even our neighbor, Canada, rejects it as savagely unworthy of an enlightened culture. Of course, countries like China and Iraq where human life is not valued still impose the sanction, and we blithely, blindly join them. But why? Why does a nation that claims to place great value on human life, so willingly, so hungrily, want to kill its killers? Is there something endemic about being American that urges us to kill, to embrace these executions, yes, to rally behind these endless wars?
We all know that the death penalty does not deter murder. When was the last time that a kid with a gun about to rob a Seven-Eleven stopped at the door and said,-Man, I better not go in there and rob the joint. I might kill someone and get the death penalty?” When was it that a husband, bent on murdering his wife, decided to take her to a state where the death penalty has been abolished, so that if caught he won’t be executed? We all know the facts: Those states without the death penalty suffer fewer murders per capita than states that kill their killers. So what is the point?
From the standpoint of the victims the yearning for revenge is understandable. But life must go on. How can a useful life stay focused on revenge? The savage need for retribution puts the killer in charge of the victims. A once peaceful mother becomes obsessed with seeing that her son’s murderer is murdered. When the execution is accomplished, perhaps ten or twenty years later, what has become of the mother’s life? Has it not been transformed into a life of hatred, and frustration and the ugliness that always marinates the vindictive soul? Has not another life been wasted?
But when the mother of a murdered child comes to terms with the fact that the killing of her child’s killer only mars the beauty of her child’s memory, when she realizes that another killing ought not be made in the name of the child and she wishes to proceed in her own life with beneficial and creative worksæperhaps in aid of other parents who have become victims as sheæthen a different light is cast upon these tragedies. The once horror of it has been transformed into a living monument to the child.
And how do we distinguish between a legal killing and one that is not? A legal killing is merely the consensus of a certain group of humans that the killing is right. Others in other governments have concluded it is wrong. Consensus does not make killing right. That a majority of Americans support death as a punishment does not make the killing right. It only makes it legal. That citizens depend on government to tell them what is right and what is wrong, that they permit the government to create their own conscience is a rather bizarre abdication of individual responsibility. We are responsible for what we believe, for what we support. Conscientious objectors refused to fight in Viet Nam. Millions marched against our government’s current invasion of Iraq. As for the death penalty, one need merely ask, if I, alone, were given the duty to deliver justice would I be unable to find a better solution than to kill the killer? Killing is so easy. It is also so mundane and uncreative. It is the act of ultimate, blunt power, the same power that was used by the killer in the first place against his victim.
The killer, although unconscious of his power, renders power over an entire nation. His venal, unspeakable act turns us into killers. We celebrate his execution. We revert to our neo-primal murderous selves, I say neo-primal because most primitive societies know nothing of the death penalty. The American Indian only banished their miscreants. In a way we wonder if the death penalty isn’t the product of a dissolute society, one that gives lip service to the sacredness of human life, but out of the same benumbed lips chants its death chants?
Who grows these killers? Mostly they come from the poor, the uneducated, the forgotten, the voiceless and the hated in our society. They are the abused children, those who have been nurtured on violence, who have suffered the twisted, distorted souls of their parents and peers and whose role models are those who believe life is not valuable, theirs or anyone else’s. They are members of an underclass who have been punished from the day they were born, innocent children who are hurled from their hospital cribs into the torture chambers of filth and lawlessness and hatred where the innocent child is punished with poverty and prejudice. These are our failures and, like anyone, we do not wish to face our failures. We bury our them in our closets, in our locked memories, in the revision of our histories. As a society we dump them into the garbage heap and if any turn out to be killers we bury them in some pauper’s grave yard and continue in our addicted cycle of hatred and killing that is satisfied only with further hatred and killing.
I should hope that someday we could break this sadistic cycle like an addict one day awakens to the possibility of a better life beyond his addiction. An awakening is in order. Already we have suffered our own killing too long.