Passing Judgment

Tookie Williams was executed last night, and in the cold dawn light of the next day right-wingers are still dancing around the embers of their victory bonfires. “Shake hands with the devil,” says one. Michelle Malkin, in her role as tribal high priestess, makes righteous note of the names of those Tookie Williams was convicted of murdering. Those who protested the execution are dismissed as “the freak show.”

So Tookie Williams is dead, and the four people he was convicted of murdering remain dead, also. And the world turns, and the seasons change. In the vastness of eternity, big bleeping deal. Whatever path Williams took last night is one we’ll all take eventually. Whether we “deserve” death or not is beside the point.

And this is a point missed by both advocates and protesters of last night’s execution. Opponents of the death penalty make a huge mistake, IMO, by making the issue about what a prisoner might deserve. Will Bunch wrote yesterday about an anti-death penalty “cult of celebrity” that makes poster boys out of “deserving” prisoners like Williams or Mumia Abu-Jamal. These men are considered “deserving” because of their intelligence and accomplishments. Those who argue for sparing them either dismiss their convictions or insist they are better men now and don’t deserve to die for what they did then.

But if we make the argument about who deserves to die, we’re thinking like righties, who arrogantly believe they know who deserves to live or die. Bunch continues,

To truly oppose the death penalty, one must oppose it not just for the innocent or the remorseful, but for the most vile scum among us. The idea of a government taking someone’s life is offensive to our core religious beliefs — and most likely to yours as well. A so-called Christian fundamentalist who supports capital punishment is going through more twists than a South Philly pretzel. Even the Pope — and maybe even Rick Santorum — can get this one right.

From an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times,

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER should have granted clemency — to Donald Beardslee, the convicted murderer executed in January. Beardslee didn’t have celebrity advocates making his case, like Stanley Tookie Williams did. But if Schwarzenegger had commuted Beardslee’s sentence to life in prison without parole, he would have made clear that no one would be put to death on his watch. And he could have explained that a civilized society doesn’t kill for retribution and should certainly not continue doing so when it’s become clear that the judicial system’s margin of error is unacceptably high.

Alas, Schwarzenegger failed to stake out that principled position. So Williams, who was scheduled to be executed shortly after midnight, always faced an uphill battle in seeking clemency. The governor turned him down because he does not consider capital punishment to be about our values as a society, but about the merits of the convicted supplicant.

Put another way, executions are not just about what is done to the condemned, but about what is done to us, the executioners.

The death penalty does not deter crime. Nor, I believe, has it been proved reliably to ease the sorrow of those who loved the victim. It only serves to gratify some base instinct that makes us want to cast all aberrations out of the tribe — including the malformed, the odd, the diseased, and anyone else who varies from social and biological norms.

But throughout human history, the great moral and spiritual teachers have urged us to renounce this instinct. If Jesus really said what he is quoted as saying in Matthew chapters 5-7, for example, the rightie tribal dancers need to look to their own souls. “Ye have heard that it was said to men of old, Thou shalt not murder; and whosoever shall murder shall be liable to judgement. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with His brother without good cause shall be liable to judgement. … Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that ye resist not the evil one: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. … Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

About five centuries earlier, the Tao Teh Ching warned (verse 74)

People fear death because death is an instrument of fate.
When people are killed by execution rather than by fate,
This is like carving wood in the place of a carpenter.
Those who carve wood in place of a carpenter
Often injure their hands.

Capital punishment is a failure of civilization. It legitimizes violence. It gratifies our worse instincts. It diminishes us as a people.

It’s not something to celebrate.

See also: Lawyers, Guns, and Money; Eschaton; The Talking Dog, R.J. Eskow at Huffington Post.

Update: See the Rude One, too.

13 thoughts on “Passing Judgment

  1. “Capital punishment is a failure of civilization. It legitimizes violence. It gratifies our worse instincts. It diminishes us as a people.”

    Thank you for that succint yet excellent summary of the issue.

  2. Thanks for an excellent post, Maha. I can always count on you for the essence. This whole ‘who deserves what’ thing just makes me sick.

  3. Does not deter crime?

    Support for capital punishment is, of course, usually associated with the political right. But the lead author of a new paper making what might be termed the “big government” case for the death penalty is the noted liberal scholar Cass Sunstein. The paper draws in part on a study conducted at Emory University, which found a direct association between the reauthorization of the death penalty, in 1977, and reduced homicide rates. The Emory researchers’ “conservative estimate” was that on average, every execution deters eighteen murders. Sunstein and his co-author argue that this calculus makes the death penalty not just morally licit but morally required. A government that fails to make use of it, they write, is effectively condemning large numbers of its citizens to death—a sin of omission like failing to protect the environment or to provide adequate health care. “If each execution is saving many lives,” they conclude, “the harms of capital punishment would have to be very great to justify its abolition, far greater than most critics have heretofore alleged.”

  4. “Does not deter crime?”

    No, it doesn’t. For every one study you find that claims it does, you can find 78 or so that says it doesn’t. And, I might add, these would be studies a lot more recent than 1977. So you cherry pick the one that works for you; I stick with majority opinion. This is called “intellectual honesty.”

    I already linked to one, but here are some more links to several others:

    This one argues that the death penalty actually INCREASES homicides:

  5. Terrific post, Maha. I don’t think anyone has ever calculated the harm done to a society by the death penalty or by vindictive acts in general. Supporters of torture speak of it as productive and necessary. Of course it’s not, torture’s just another vindictive act. Is there another animal on the planet as capable of vindictive violence as we are? Is there another animal on the planet as guilty of degrading the planet to the extent that we are?

  6. Excellent post, Barbara! Thanks. I’ve already shared linked details of it at two newsgroups.

    The Tao verse you quoted just puts the ‘injuries’ mildly. The effect of executing human beings as being acceptable, has incalculable far reaching DE-humanizing implications for a society.

  7. If the death penalty is a deterrent, would someone please explain why the countries of the European Union (no deatlh penalty since the 1960s) consistently have a murder rate one-fourth of that in the U.S.?

  8. It doesn’t work because you can’t be against it but then go ahead and do it. And that goes for Saddam too.

  9. Pingback: The Heretik

  10. I like the thoughts and I am coming around to them. Being pretty tribal and uncivilized, I have always been of the view that there are some acts so heinous that society is justified in taking the perpetrator’s life. Things like geonocide, the rape and murder of children, perhaps certain murders for profit. The problem in my mind had always been the enforcement of capital punishment–white juries sentencing poor minorities to death for crimes that while certainly deserving of punishment did not seem to my mind to warrant death and of course the problems of law enforcement misconduct that raise the risks of innocent people being executed. What is bringing me around to Maha’s view does not come so much from the capital punishment debate, but from the torture debate. The proponents of torture construct these elaborate scenarios where the lives of thousands are saved because the “good guys” were permitted to inflict fear and pain on the “bad guys”. Of course that is as fanciful as the idea that the bad guy was going to rape and murder this woman, but then rememberd that he was in Texas so he took a cold shower and went back under his rock. What has come clear to me, however, is that the U.S. unwillingness to simply say we will not torture under any circumstances and be prepared to back it up with criminal prosecution, has greatly diminished us in the eyes of the world. The same can be said of capital punishment , I guess with the exception of China, Vietnam and Iran. Quite apart from what it does to the people who participate in capital punishment and our society (I live in a state which has never had capital punishment) it is becoming clear to me that we are diminishing our stature in the world by engaging in the process and that outweighs whatever satisfaction society might derive from putting the really, really bad people to death.

  11. “Does not deter crime?”
    The country of Canada in a single year has fewer murders than the city of Detroit. Most of Canada’s murders are committed with knives. Guns are rarely used in murders because there is no “constitutional right” to bear arms in Canada. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1965. In 2005 Toronto has experienced a spike in that city’s murder rate. Many of these murders have been committed by guns (and the people using them). Police suspect that many of these guns have been smuggled into Ontario from New York State.

  12. My favorite argument against the death penalty is libertarian. I simply do not trust the government with that much power.

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