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Death American Style

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Copyright © 2006 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

Just after midnight on December 13 California killed Stanley “Tookie” Williams, former gang leader and convicted murderer turned writer and anti-gang activist. On January 17 California killed Clarence Ray Allen, a multiple murderer turned wheelchair-bound invalid. California’s next premeditated act is scheduled for February 21, when Michael Angelo Morales faces the needle.

Three executions in as many months is a record for true blue California, which had killed only eleven prisoners between the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1978 and Williams. With 646 people on its death row, the most of any state, opportunities abound. Furthermore, the Golden State’s bloodlust remains strong: 70% of Californians support the death penalty, a rate consistent with the national average. A January effort to initiate an execution moratorium failed in the Democrat-dominated legislature; few among the elect want to go on record against killing people. Nevertheless, California will have trouble catching up to Texas, which has killed about 200 convicts since 1978 — not that anyone counts in Texas.

Americans were not always like this. In the wake of World War II — yea, even in the reactionary Fifties — support for the death penalty was in decline. It dropped to a low of 47% in 1966, a year when we still held ourselves up as a moral model for the world, our Vietnam debacle notwithstanding. Since the Republican era commenced, however, morality has given way to religiosity, with a concomitant evangelical passion for judgment and retribution. Only in the wee minds of the chauvinistic mob does this nation remain a paragon of virtue. The civilized world has moved on without us.

The U.S. is the only so-called industrialized democracy that executes. In the Western Hemisphere our sole blood brother is, ironically, Cuba. Globally, we belong to a club with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and sundry nations in Africa. Secretive, authoritarian China — some estimate — executes between 9000 and 10,000 people a year, for crimes ranging from murder to anti-government activity — not that anyone really counts in China. It is a record a Texas governor can only envy.

Don’t mistake this column, by the way, for another bleeding-heart screed against the death penalty. All it asks is that Americans look in the mirror and admit honestly their motives for supporting this punishment. What is it about this nation that makes it more like benighted regions of Asia and Africa and less like modern Europe and South America? We shall look dispassionately at the facts.

First, the beloved argument that the threat of death serves as a deterrent against murder has long been contradicted by empirical evidence. Alongside capital punishment, the U.S. experiences an average of six murders per 100,000 people per year. In non-execution nations — Germany averages two murders per 100,000 per year; France only one per 100,000; Great Britain one per 200,000. Even our fellow Americans in Canada experience only two murders per 100,000, despite a high rate of gun ownership.

Even within the U.S., a comparison of the states that kill and those that don’t contradicts the deterrence argument. The South performs 80% of the country’s executions, yet its murder rate is significantly higher than that of other regions — according to the FBI, 6.8 murders per 100,000 versus 5.1 in the West and Midwest, 4.0 in the Northeast. Texas, which kills three times as many convicts as any other state, posted a 7.6 percent rise in its homicide rate in 2001; like the South as a whole, it consistently outstrips the rest of the country in violent crime. One could argue that these statistics indicate that the South needs the death penalty, because the region is obviously bursting with violent bastards. Faced with the fallacy of deterrence, death advocates must fall back on the incontestable assertion that killing someone prevents him from killing again. Duh.

Which brings us to another favorite argument: that death gives the victims’ loved ones “closure.” “Closure,” of course, is a transparent euphemism for “revenge,” which sounds too-well-nasty. Vengeance wears the bloody taint of the unredeemed soul; it is for gangsters, Klingons, Shakespearean antiheroes, Hatfields and McCoys, and others bound by barbarian honor codes.

This lust for pure vengeance was well demonstrated before the “Tookie” Williams execution. In response to Williams’ pleas for forgiveness, a middle-aged female family member of one of the long deceased said on television that if Williams wanted forgiveness, he had better be praying to God, because he wasn’t getting it from her.

Which brings us to the favorite argument used by our thanatophiles: that the death penalty is not only justified but mandated by the Judeo-Christian Deity. Especially in the Bible Belt, with its historic use of Scripture to defend slavery, lynching, and official violence of all kinds, the message pours from pulpits, newspapers, airwaves, and billboards. Favorite citations arise mostly in the Hebrew Bible — the Old Testament for Christians — such as the popular “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” passage from Leviticus 24: 17-20, which begins “And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.” Certainly one can find ample examples of Hebrew covenant-breakers getting stoned under Mosaic law; technically, anyone who violated any of the Ten Commandments was subject to that penalty, from blasphemers to adulterers.

Because Christian belief dictates that the New Testament is supposed to supersede the Old, pro-death Christians — like earlier pro-slavery Christians — have sweated exegetically for further justification. They seek solace in Paul’s announcement in Romans 13 that “the powers that be are ordained by God,” that each such earthly power is “the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”

In the Gospels themselves, Jesus Christ is wholly silent on the subject, a fact which pro-death Christians take as implicitly supporting Mosaic law. Some grasp at the straw extended in Matthew 26:24, where Jesus says of Judas, “it had been good for that man if he had not been born,” but that is quite obviously an argument for abortion, not execution.

In his own behavior, however, the Jesus of the Gospels contravenes the letter of the law. When Mary Magdalene is threatened with execution for adultery, Jesus stops the stones. In his parable of the prodigal son, the father welcomes the son back instead of killing him for his rebellion, as he was entitled. And one cannot logically justify the death penalty without justifying the crucifixion itself. Pro-death Christians try to argue that the Passion is irrelevant to the death penalty debate, because Jesus was not executed legally. But crucifixion was, in fact, the Roman penalty for all forms of rabble-rousing, especially in the insurgent Jewish lands. Jesus was arrested for being linked with Jewish separatists, who were regarded as enemy combatants by the Roman state and thus not subject to the protections of imperial law.

The best recent discussion of the Scriptural arguments for death appears in the 2004 book The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty by Dale S. Recinella — attorney, Catholic lay chaplain to the Florida prison system, and frequent speaker on worldwide Vatican Radio. Among his points is that even under Mosaic law a conviction leading to capital punishment had to be approved by a Sanhedrin, or assembly, of as many as 71 judges, who were collectively charged with determining innocence, not guilt. That is why under Hebrew law bearing false witness — i.e., committing perjury to convict someone — was deemed as serious as murder and subject to the same penalty.

If we are to justify capital punishment scripturally, Recinella observes, why don’t we impose that standard on our often overzealous prosecutors? We could probably double our death row population — in Texas, for sure.

Quoting chapter and verse, Recinella argues that the whole point of the Passion was atonement for all crimes of humankind. If you’re a Christian, you are supposed to believe that the Son of God offered himself up as the ultimate sacrifice and that “biblically based capital punishment ceased at the same time Jesus died on Calvary.” Even if you believe that only born again Christians are thus shriven, recall the case of Karla Faye Tucker, the convert executed in Texas — and, indeed, ridiculed — by born again governor George W. Bush. In short, pro-death Christians themselves don’t really believe the bullshit they preach.

Let’s face it: whether shooting a convenience store clerk, bombing civilians in Pakistan, or lethally injecting some loser, taking life is part of the American way. As humans — the world’s most sophisticated predators — we simply justify our taste for blood with self-righteousness. Thus, whether pounding a hapless rape victim, a guest at Gitmo, or the Bible, Americans do it with conviction.

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