Friday, May 02, 2008

Death, where is thy sting?

The New York Times reported on Friday that just three weeks after the Supreme Court issued another of its morally corrupt decisions, this one clearing the way for resumption of lethal injections as a means of execution (i.e., state-sponsored murder),
execution dockets are quickly filling up. ...

[A]t least 14 execution dates have been set in six states between May 6 and October. ...

Texas leads the list with five people now set to die here in the Walls Unit, the state’s death house, between June 3 and Aug. 20. Virginia is next with four. Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota have also set execution dates.
Some people seemed quite eager to get on with it. In a sentiment reminiscent of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" (from her book Eichmann in Jerusalem), Russ Willard, speaking for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, looked forward to "work[ing] our way though the system at a much more rapid pace" and a “clearance of the backlog.” That this "backlog" consists of living, breathing human beings who are to be strapped to tables and poisoned doesn't register, it's just the shifting of forms, all just part of the process. As Robert Frost said,

It couldn't be called ungentle.
But how thoroughly departmental.

Meanwhile, William Hubbarth, of a Houston-based "victims rights group," described what was coming as "playing a little bit of catch-up," as if the delayed death sentences were like, what, being a little behind in your filing? Oh, but it's not that he has "a cheering section for the death penalty," oh no. It's just that the convicted should be killed "post-haste." 'Cause, y'know, time's a wastin' and we got things to do and body bags to fill. I can almost see the drool at the anticipation of vengeance.

There are lots of good reasons, both practical and ethical, to oppose the death penalty. Lots of unrefuted reasons. And yet still this badge of brutality, this symbol of savagery, stays with us, stays with us because ultimately, that's all the death penalty is about: not justice, not deterrence, but vengeance, bloody vengeance - except that we try to convince ourselves we are too civilized for that and so do our best to eliminate the actual blood. It's all neat, tidy, clean, antiseptic, proper, all according to procedure. We don't even have the honesty to call it vengeance. We call it "retribution."

In fact, when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia), it said that
[t]he death penalty is said to serve two principal social purposes: retribution and deterrence of capital crimes by prospective offenders.
It then quite literally immediately went on to admit that the evidence for a deterrent effect was at best inconclusive - which means that the only basis on which it could support the "logic" of the death penalty was on the basis of, quoting, "channeling" the "instinct for retribution" in officially-approved and controlled ways. The death penalty is constitutional, the Court essentially argued, not because of justice or deterrence, that is, not because it does any good, but simply because of a primitive emotional desire to kill the killers, that is, because it makes us feel good to "get them back," to satisfy a desire for vengeance, something illegitimate for the individual but legitimate for "society."

That's why, despite having facts and logic on our side, we keep having to ask, in the words of the old Fellowship of Reconciliation button, "We do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?"

Footnote: I don't want to call this an "every dark cloud" thing, because it still involves executions resuming, but Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights suggests that the resumption of official killing may turn more people against it: “There will be more executions than people have the stomach for, at least in many parts of the country,” he said.

And in its own comment on the decision, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said that it's important to bear in mind
what the Court did not consider. The Court did not argue that the death penalty is a meritorious public policy. The Court did not declare that capital punishment is free of blunders, biases and bureaucracies – blunders because of the number of innocent people sentenced to death; biases because of the class and racial inequities that plague the system; and bureaucracies because of the cumbersome and time-consuming nature of death penalty appeals.
In short, it avowedly dodged the overall issue of the death penalty and focused solely on the method of lethal injection. What's more,
after more than 30 years of supporting executions, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens changed his mind. ... Stevens indicated that if it were up to him, he would do away with the death penalty altogether. “The time for a dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces has surely arrived,” he wrote.
In fact, it's long past time.

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