12 December 2005

Life and Death

I don't have a firm viewpoint on the death penalty, but I'll admit that the whole idea leaves me a bit squeamish. In the unlikely event that I ever held high political office, I'm not sure I could oversee someone's execution, but at the same time, I'd be at a loss to explain the benefit of keeping certain hardened criminals alive at public expense for several decades.

Perhaps it comes down to a question of which is the worse punishment: a quick and painless extinguishing of one's life, or being forced to spend the rest of said life in a cage. In my younger, more ruminative and more rebellious days, I always swore that I'd rather die than spend my life in prison, and I assumed the same would be true of most convicted criminals. But considering the tenacity with which most of them battle to stay alive, even when they know they're unlikely ever to get out of prison, I was probably wrong.

As is the case with many ostensibly good causes, what keeps me from wholeheartedly joining the anti-death penalty cause is the dubious character of its adherents. It's not the full-fledged pacifists that bother me. I think they're unrealistic and a bit starry-eyed, but so long as they're consistent in their beliefs, I have to respect them.

But the genuine pacifists are a minority among the opposition to the death penalty. Other defenders of people like Stanley "Tookie" Williams or Mumia Abu Jamal appear to have less salubrious motives. Instead of simply arguing that state-sanctioned killing is wrong, they go further and attempt to turn convicted criminals into heroes and role models. While they'll argue vehemently that Tookie and Mumia are innocent, you get the feeling that they wouldn't mind too terribly much if they weren't. In the Mumia case, in particular, many of the Free Mumia people advance arguments along the lines of, "He never killed that cop, not that cop-killing is such a bad thing anyway."

Similarly with Tookie Williams, the argument is dual-pronged: he's innocent of the charges and at the same time he deserves to have his sentence commuted because he's a reformed man. Presumably he had to be guilty of something in order to reform, but consistency is not a strong point with these folks. They're like the "antiwar" people who aren't really against the war at all. War is fine with them; they just want the other side to win.

Having said that, I've noticed that the Tookie campaign has had its effect on me: it's succeeded in humanising the man to the point where it is bothering me to think that he will be executed in a few hours. I still think he's a thoroughly unpleasant man, probably guilty of the crimes he's charged with and certainly guilty of others, and I'm reminded that he's resolutely refused to cooperate with the police in bringing any of his old gangbanger mates to justice. In other words, his "reformation" is a fairly shallow one, and probably mainly cosmetic, as is his "Nobel Peace Prize nomination" (anyone can nominate anyone for that honour).

Despite that, I'll get no satisfaction out of seeing him dead, and something seems a bit off-kilter for a cartoonish film star-turned governor to have the final say over another man's life or death. I correct myself: the United States Supreme Court, a somewhat more stately institution, has just weighed in with its opinion, also turning down Williams' appeal. I personally know a few people who will be holding a vigil outside San Quentin tonight, who will be crying genuine tears if or when the execution takes place. And to the extent that their tears are for the institutionalised brutality of capital punishment, I understand and (almost) support them. If, however, their cries of anguish and rage are for the man himself, I contend that every day on this planet thousands, maybe tens of thousands die more unjustly and are more deserving of our tears.

3 comments:

resident jason said...

while i am wholly against the death penalty (across the board, not just folks like tookie and mumia) and i appreciate that tookie was making some sort of amends behind bars (books, for example, aimed at youth), i lost what little respect i had for the man when i read that he refused to offer any details about the crips, for fear of being labeled 'a snitch'. he had every opportunity to set things right and he blew it. i believe schwarzennegger would have spared his life had he offered up some info that might have solved some of the other crips-related murders.

Tim said...

I have no problem putting to death a man like John Wayne Gacy, who was caught red-handed and would never have anything to offer to society again. However, I'm still basically/sorta against the death penalty for several reasons.

1. Most importantly, it's been proven that some innocent people have been put to death. How many? I have no idea, but one is way too many.
2. It has never been proven to deter violent criminals from committing crimes.
3. It does not save the taxpayers money as we're lead to believe. The legal costs for appeals supposedly outweigh the cost of incarcerating a prisoner for life.
4. There seems to be a gap in the percentage of violent offenders that are put to death between caucasians and minorities.

Apparently, the difference between life and death usually hinges on whether or not you can afford a decent lawyer.

drydock said...

I was in a smallish way part of the "Save Tookie" campaign, so I'll respond to some of your comments.

Larry---Instead of simply arguing that state-sanctioned killing is wrong, they go further and attempt to turn convicted criminals into heroes and role models.

I agree with this point however I think only a minority of "Save Tookie" people were doing hero worship including; Dennis Bernstein (a guy who plays to the crowd and never asks a tough question) on KPFA and some of his guests, ISO members, and I few naive people. It would help if others who opposed the death penalty stepped up and made this argument as well. I was interviewed randomly twice and made this point.




Larry-- While they'll argue vehemently that Tookie and Mumia are innocent, you get the feeling that they wouldn't mind too terribly much if they weren't.

While the question of Tookie's innocence/guilt was raised (as in my opinion it should be) the dominant slogan was "Save Tookie" not "Free Tookie".



Larry---Similarly with Tookie Williams, the argument is dual-pronged: he's innocent of the charges and at the same time he deserves to have his sentence commuted because he's a reformed man. Presumably he had to be guilty of something in order to reform, but consistency is not a strong point with these folks. >>

Tookie admitted to anti-social violent behavior in the past while not admitting to the crimes he was put to death for. Nothing is inconsistent in his redemption in my opinion.

Larry---They're like the "antiwar" people who aren't really against the war at all. War is fine with them; they just want the other side to win.

I assume you might be referring to anti-war movement people who support the Iraqi insurgents. As far as know not one prominent American leftist has taken this position. Some sectarians groups have leaned in this direction but so what. The vast majority of anti-war people do not hold this position. This a dishonest argument put out mainly by the pro-war left a la Hitchens and his asskissers.

Larry---Having said that, I've noticed that the Tookie campaign has had its effect on me: it's succeeded in humanising the man

Same effect for me. Maybe people who commit ugly acts are still humans.



Larry--I'm reminded that he's resolutely refused to cooperate with the police in bringing any of his old gangbanger mates to justice. In other words, his "reformation" is a fairly shallow one, and probably mainly cosmetic,

Disagree.
From hearing him on the radio, he's seemed to have gone a long way. Also face it, if you're a known snitch in jail that could be a death sentence. I think this argument was a fairly lame one put out by Scwarznegger


Larry-- as is his "Nobel Peace Prize nomination" (anyone can nominate anyone for that honour).

I agree here. This was a phony argument in a lot of ways. But people did it to bring attention to his positive work and save his life. So I forgive them.


Larry--I understand and (almost) support them.
Join us Larry.

Larry---If, however, their cries of anguish and rage are for the man himself, I contend that every day on this planet thousands, maybe tens of thousands die more unjustly and are more deserving of our tears.

The guys on death row for the most part did heinous crimes. But some are probably innocent. But it really isn't about them. It's about what can of society we are going to have. Most of the world has gone against the death penalty.