Last night, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had the chance to save a life; instead, he cleared the way for the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Today, I'd like to examine not this case in particular, nor Williams's rehabilitation as a person, but capital punishment in general.
The death penalty, to me, offers none of the benefits its proponents suggest. No, the ultimate punishment has no place in a civilized society, especially one known for its compassion. It's second chances. It's morality. None of those things, however, seem evident today. The great mob has once again won. But at what cost?
"I've said once and I've said a lot that in every case," Bush said, "we've adequately answered innocence or guilt." Defendants, he added, "had full access to the courts. They've had full access to a fair trial." Never mind the fact of those cases, 43 of the 131 defense attorneys were later disciplined or disbarred for their legal ineptitude. Some didn't even present evidence.
Many in favor of capital punishment would also consider themselves "pro-life." But the same people fighting for the life of a clump of cells and treating a brain-dead Terri Schiavo as a political prop somehow lose their "compassion" when it comes to death-row inmates.
Hell, why wait that long? They normally lose their compassion once the child is born, only to remember it shortly before death years later. Because, if they actually had any compassion, they would support life-saving or -improving measures like medicinal marijuana or stem-cell research.
Further, for these so-called pro-lifers - the anti-everything Nuisance Generation - it's not about compassion, it's about vengeance. It's about power. It's about the feeling they get when they know the lives of others are in their hands. It's that same soulless bravado - the machismo Schwarzenegger perfected on the silver screen - that results in capital punishment. In torture. In the use of chemical weapons on civilians.
If capital punishment isn't about vengeance, then what is it about? Is it about deterrence? Can you honestly tell me that by putting Williams to death, we're preventing the next generation of brutal murderers? Of course not, because crimes like murder, more often than not, are done without regard for right and wrong, for reason and conscience. Let's say that, every once in a while, the state executes an innocent man, an individual who, through no fault of his own, wasn't afforded a proper defense or the luxury of DNA evidence. How can we then kill without justification knowing that it does absolutely nothing to stop the next murder?
If it's not about vengeance or deterrence, is it about closure? Does Williams's death erase his crimes? Does it for one second bring back those whose lives he took? No. And the moment we decide to take people's lives for their grievous crimes, we lose the moral high ground. We sink even lower as a society. What does it tell our citizens about the value of life when we're so willing to take it from someone - whatever our justification?
Perhaps the support for an ugly practice like capital punishment comes from a sense of distance, of impersonality. The same sense that leads people to support war. If they don't have to see it, face it directly, they can reconcile themselves with it. What if, however, we televised the next execution? What if viewers had the chance to witness a drawn out lethal injection? A graphic electrocution? What if a national audience were able to see the effects of white phosphorus when used as a weapon? Or the deadly results of an improvised explosive device?
Would attitudes change? Or would America's mob mentality and undeniable thirst for blood turn televised executions into the most popular program in existence? The answer, sadly, points more to the latter than the former. And until we begin to address our attitudes toward capital punishment with more than macho posturing or hypocritical beliefs, we're doomed to continue our moral backslide.