A World of Speculation

Watching the brouhaha over the last days of Tookie Williams’ life causes me to wonder how much the “liturgy” of death penalty opposition serves as an impetus to violent crime.

I mean “liturgy” in the sense of the structure of public spectacle, not the religious content — though there certainly is a lot of that — but what, say, an extraterrestrial might understand about our attitudes if he didn’t understand our language at all.

Death penalty opponents refer to the liturgy of execution (though not in those words) when they talk about violence begetting violence, when they say it’s equally barbaric to put murderers to death as for murderers to put their victims to death. We agree that pageants, spectacles and ceremonies matter, that these large public events communicate meaning and context beyond words, that they serve as a metamessage, in the sense that Deborah Tannen uses the word.

Now look at the metamessage of Tookie Williams, Mumia Abu-Jamal and any criminal you can think of on death row (and it seems that the more brutal the crime the more sympathetic the liturgy).

They become the center of attention for decades as their cases return again and again to the courts; Hollywood elites take up their cause; Williams gets books published under his name; there are Nobel Prize nominations; they are declared both innocent and repentant, sometimes by the same person and in the same breath. There are candlelight vigils, honorary citizenships in upscale countries. For the last few weeks of their lives, they dominate the media and are spoken of as if they have done some important benefit for society.

And their victims? Their names are scarcely mentioned, except in the context of their assailants. We know that Williams’ first victim gurgled amusingly — to Williams — as he died. I saw a photo on the Internet of the young woman from Taiwan who was his fourth victim for which he was convicted — half her face had been shot off. The reason for posting it was to build sympathy — but as public spectacle, she looks pathetic; Tookie in his buff prison physique looks like a hero. Do we hear who loved the victims? Did any famous actors visit them? Did they get nominated for an award, even from the motel management association? Do we know who they loved, what they enjoyed, what they were good at?

It’s as if the anti-death-penalty movement says of the murder victims, “Ah, well. Shit happens,” and of the murderers, “This death is a inexcusable.”

How can young people with a bent toward crime not look at that disparity and say they know who’s powerful, who’s got respect, who’s the one to be reckoned with? Is it some guy who goes to work everyday in a gas station, or is it the one who kills him for $120 and kicks?

Here are a couple of ways to address the liturgy of the death penalty without sacrificing their principled stand against it.

First, show the same anguish over the death of every murder victim as for the murderers. It might take some effort — a candlelight vigil after every local murder, for example, with mourners. Match candlelight vigils for the murderer on death row with give equal time to each and every victim. Make the speakers talk about the tragedy of the gas station attendant’s death as well as the murderer’s death. If there are prayer services for the murderer, then include the murder victims, by name. Nominate the victims for Nobel prizes. Split the murderer’s legal defense fund equally with the families or favorite charities of all the victims. In other words, everything done for the murderer should be done equally or more so for each victim, by name.

Here’s a coalition of churches in Oakland doing something similar. They wrapped a 700-person ring around a 10-mile section of the city where most of its murders happen. Rev. Keith Henderson of the True Fellowship Church started the event because, he says, he got tired of visiting morgues and doing funerals and decided to do something radical. The article doesn’t say anything about capital punishment, but it would have been good for San Francisco’s capital punishment opponents to swell the ranks.

Second, if the problem is really that the death penalty opponents feel squeamish about having the State end someone’s life, consider this alternative. Call him dead, but don’t kill him. Put him in a cell with no window, just one light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and leave him in solitary confinement until he dies of non-State-related causes. Give him food, water, and materials for basic sanitation. What he needs comes through a slot in the door, but he has no contact with anybody. If he kills himself, the state didn’t do it. If he dies of a disease, the state didn’t do it. If he lives to a ripe old age and then dies, the state didn’t do it.

I would agree with death penalty opponents that a firing squad is more humane than that, but once, as a society, we’ve declared that killing is wrong, and true confinement is wrong, the next step is to abolish prisons entirely — or to declare the prisoner’s life sentence “served” after 20 years and release him.

Stephen Robinson, writing at the The Orthodox Way, presented the best case I’ve seen for capital punishment. If death penalty opponents want to see my reasons for supporting it, he captured them entirely. The purpose of this post is to ask death penalty opponents to look at what they’re communicating by the tactics and techniques of their opposition.