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What a Culture of Death Looks Like

10 November 2009

If you don’t happen to live in the D.C. Metro Area, there’s a chance you’ve missed one of the larger news stories of the week in that region.  Tonight, at 9 p.m. EST, John Allen Muhammad–the mastermind of the D.C. Sniper attacks that left 10 people dead back in October 2002–will be executed at Greenville Correctional Institution near Jarratt, Virginia.

The Washington Post, in its coverage of what will likely be the final chapter of a nine-year-long news story, has a series of articles up ahead of tonight’s execution.  As in most capital cases, they touch on some of the thorny ethical and legal issues in play–an alleged attempt by the Virginia courts to circumvent  the usual timeline for review by appellate courts, lingering questions about Muhammad’s competency, among many others that were likely beneath the notice of the Post.  But really, by the egregious standards of the American death penalty system, Muhammad’s case is about as open-and-shut as it gets.  From the legal and political perspective, there is no ground to be covered here.

But the series caught my attention because it had the courage to touch, however briefly, on the deep reservoir of emotions that keep this relic of justice lurching forward.  Most articles written about judicial executions in this country–and I read most of them–tend to include a few sentences about the victim’s family, a good quote if one can be had.  Statements of forgiveness for the inmate, or simple expressions of relief that at the fact that ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ is, exactly) is finally over, tend to make the cut easily.  Statements of satisfaction are touchier, but in particularly brutal murders might pass the test.  It covers all the bases, and leaves it at that.  There are, after all, wire reports to file, and articles that are quick and clean lend themselves well to deadlines.

What so rarely makes it into print, then, are statements like these, given to the Post’s article by Marion Lewis.  His daughter, Lori Lewis Rivera, was shot by Muhammad while vacuuming her car at a gas station in Kensington, Maryland on October 3, 2002:

“I want to see what he made me see,” Lewis said. “He forced us to look at our little girl laying in a coffin. I want to see justice done. I want to see him take a last breath. . . . I want to be able to describe it to the rest of the family.”…Lewis said he would favor a more “gruesome” method of execution. “Let’s give the guillotine a shot,” he said…

Virginia corrections officials said Muhammad will have a chance to say some last words.  Lewis said he wishes he could, too. “It would be short and simple: ‘I’m here to see you die . . . son of a bitch,’ ” he said.

I find it very difficult to stand in judgment of a passionate outburst from someone in Lewis’ position.  I hope if I ever found myself grieving for a loved one lost in a violent crime, I would be able to forgive, or at least to resist the inclination toward visceral hatred.  But forgiveness, by its very nature, is not something that I can demand of another human being, and certainly not for a moral transaction in which I have no part.  I hope that I would be different.  But confronted with such trauma, such an assault on the anchors of love and happiness in my life, it would be near the height of arrogance to say with even an ounce of certainty that I would be.

This is what we do not like to see about the death penalty.  When we think about it all–and the fact that executions are often held in the dead of night, with few witnesses, no photographs, and strict confidentiality, speaks volumes about how rarely we like to do so–we like to think of it as impassive, and unswayed by passion.  I remember reading something that then-Governor Ben Nelson said in 1994, after he signed the death warrant for Harold Otay in Nebraska.  To paraphrase, it “We are all feeling the pain of this sentence, but it is Nebraska law”.  The legal and philosophical merits of that approach are pretty-much ironclad.  Law applied based on the whims of enforcers would be an entirely new, and far worse, form of cruelty and injustice.  But it’s a vivid reminder of how sanitized we like our system, in which everyone’s just does their unfortunately, but necessary job.

Marion Lewis’s remarks open a window, however small, into the hatred and–there is no other word for it–bloodlust that lies behind capital punishment.  When you strip away the hollow and statistically de-bunked arguments for capital punishment as a crime deterrent, the rush to stand under the banner of ‘victims rights’, disavowals of responsibility, or the pointing triumphantly to Levitican logic, you are left with this image: hundreds of people standing outside the Florida State Prison in Starke on the morning Ted Bundy was electrocuted.  Standing, holding gruesome signs, and, after Bundy’s death was announced, getting to their feet and cheering, wildly. Without that sort of collective howl for vengeance, there would not be a death chamber anywhere in America.

True hatred like that which consumes Marion Lewis is one of those funny things.  It is simultaneously a moral absolute, but also understandable, forgivable and even condonable.  And we have little choice but to forgive it, lest we abandon compassion completely for one who so thoroughly deserves all that we have to offer.  Maybe that gives human beings a de facto license to not be better than that. So be it.  But the death penalty, in the end,is a mechanism of celebrating that our worst instincts, and perversely elevating them to the level of virtue.  Whatever just cause drives it, hatred is still hatred.  Just as whatever the context, be it war, self-defense, or what have you, ending a human life is never worth a peep of applause.  Sometimes such tragedies are necessary, of course.  That’s the world.  But necessary or otherwise, they lower us.  Maybe not in the adrenaline rush of the moment, or the euphoria of retribution, but in the end, they always do.

Tonight, John Allen Muhammed, the murderer of ten people that we know of, will be put to death by the state of Virginia.  And while a three-drug cocktail is pushed into his veins by an anonymous executioner, Marion Lewis will be watching through a one-way glass window.  I hope that he is able to muster some iota of forgiveness, compassion, and yes, even love, for the person strapped to that gurney.  But from the sound of things, he will judge the world a better place for Muhammad’s death.  And we will be the lesser for giving a voice and power to that logic.

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