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.