On Troy Davis And The Death Penalty

Many who live deserve death, and some that die deserve life – can you give it to them? Do not be so quick to deal out death and judgement.

Gandalf – Lord of the Rings

 

Troy Davis is dead. The fact the death penalty is itself alive and well after this and many, many other dreadful injustices, is not a hopeful sign for the abolitionists. For Troy Davis isn’t close to being the first, nor will he be the last innocent person to die by state mandate.

The whole Death Row system puts me in mind of the Roman emperors, deciding the fate of prisoners with a signal: thumbs up or thumbs down. At least the Romans were honest in using executions as entertainment, whereas America, supposedly a civilised Western nation, tries to cloak the savage nature of executions with the trappings of a long and drawn out judicial system, in which ultimately a mere handful of people decide the fate of a convicted criminal, while still allowing the public to witness them.

You need only look at the attitudes of the governors who condemn people to death to see how utterly morally unfit we are to decide whether our fellows should live or die. Who can forget George W Bush’s mocking of the terrified Karla Faye Tucker’s pleas for clemency? And now we have Rick Perry, who has overseen more executions as Texas governor than any American governor in history, and takes perverse pride in this while claiming he loses no sleep that an innocent person may have been killed (the case of Cameron Todd Willingham proves that this is a certainty). What is frighteningly clear is that neither treats the act of ending a person’s existence seriously.

How is it that those with power to condemn can do so with such callousness and lack of awareness of the gravity of the act? I don’t suggest they think that killing a person isn’t a serious step to take, but that they do not appreciate the full awfulness of what killing involves: destroying a person forever. Why is America alone of all Western countries, such a proud and eager enforcer of this terrible and barbaric punishment? Christopher Hitchens pretty much nails it here, I think:

Nobody had been bothering to argue that the rope or the firing squad, or the gas chamber, or “Old Sparky” the bristle-making chair, or the deadly catheter were a deterrent. The point of the penalty was that it was death. It expressed righteous revulsion and symbolized rectitude and retribution. Voila tout! The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries. (Take away only China, which is run by a very nervous oligarchy, and the remaining death-penalty states in the world will generally be noticeable as theocratic ones.)

And this is the crux of the matter. The overwhelming majority of death penalty supporters in America are Christians. It’s tempting to claim that as usual, these Christians aren’t following their own faith, but in fact they are. The Bible declares the wages of sin to be death, and the fact we all have to die someday is deemed punishment for our inherent sinfulness. So it is entirely natural for an intensely religious country to see death as an appropriate punishment for particularly evil crimes. And it also explains the lack of comprehension as to exactly what executing a person is doing. When you firmly believe that there is an afterlife, you cannot grasp the fact that by killing a person, you may have destroyed them for all time, and you cannot grasp the incredible awfulness of that fact. Add to that the fact that we just don’t know what happens when we die. There may be indeed a heaven and hell, but it is just as likely that death is literally the end for us. It’s all very well for religious people to claim that the guilty executed will go to hell, and the innocents executed will be well compensated for their suffering in Heaven (providing they accept Jesus as their saviour of course!), while being just as ignorant as the rest of us as to what comes next. It is precisely because we don’t know that no human being should have the power of life and death over another.

There’s a strange kind of moral blindness in those who support capital punishment. They claim that murder is such a heinous crime that only death is a punishment sufficiently severe enough for it, while completely failing to see the inherent paradox of the deliberate taking of a human life necessitating the deliberate taking of another human life to balance the books, as it were. It is supposed to deter people from murdering, yet no statistics have ever backed that claim up. On the contrary, instead of acting as a force for good, as its supporters insist, the death penalty is a great force for evil in that it is the result of our very worst instincts, and brings out the very worst side of us. The cries of ‘Fry him!’, the savage braying for blood, the demand for vengeance, and worst of all, the sickening gloating satisfaction after the execution betrays what America’s ultra-civilised system tries to conceal: that capital punishment is primitive, barbaric, and completely uncivilised.

For those of us who naturally oppose the death penalty, there are still traps and temptations that we risk falling into. The most obvious is to make exceptions: clearly, innocent people shouldn’t die, but when we read about a child rapist and killer, it becomes very tempting to say, “Well, this person deserves it, because what he did was so terrible.” In fact, the very same day Troy Davis was executed, this man was too:

White supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed Wednesday evening for the infamous dragging death slaying of James Byrd Jr., a black man from East Texas.

Byrd, 49, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and pulled whip-like to his death along a bumpy asphalt road in one of the most grisly hate crime murders in recent Texas history.

There was no doubt about his guilt. He committed a hate crime and murder as evil as any ever committed. This crime makes it easy to see why the death penalty has so many supporters. Yet Brewer did not deserve to die either, because nobody deserves to be put to death. We must always remember that.

 

 

 

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