My state is considering repealing the death penalty, but before they make their decision, and before I say whether I think they should, I’d just like to share what I enjoy so much about it.
1. I’m a fan of retribution. (No sarcasm.) You steal my pen, I’ll steal it back. You punch me in the face, I’ll punch you in the throat. I enjoy returning pain to those who intentionally bring it to me. It makes me feel better.
And when the pain isn’t inflicted on purpose, I’ll still sometimes find myself returning it. It’s not a conscious behavior. Victor once accidentally hurt me with a random movement, and my instinct was to say “Ow!” and hit him back.
As humans, maybe this is just what we do.
2. When I think of a society, particularly when it comes to punishment, I always find myself remembering The Clan of the Cave Bear. Or thinking about the caveman population in general. The assumption I make about their justice system is that it was very simple: break the rules of society, and you are eliminated from that society.
I don’t see a problem with this. If we want the masses to behave in a civilized manner, and if we want to protect the innocent from the criminal element, it makes sense to remove that criminal element once it’s revealed.
We have rules. You break them, you leave (go to prison).
You take the life of a member, you waive your own right to life and we kill you.
3. Mean people piss me off, and I enjoy fantasies of hurting them, whether it’s physically or emotionally. It pleases me that someone guilty of a brutal crime (for instance, the two men found guilty of killing a woman and her two daughters in Cheshire, CT) might spend every day on death row dreading that final day. I like to think they’re being raped in prison, and that they’ll experience very little joy up to the day of their death.
Even writing that feels cruel, because I understand that no person is simple. Even murderers are complex and have redeeming qualities. Many of the worst people in our society are the way they are through no fault of their own. As children, they may have been beaten, molested, neglected, emotionally traumatized, or otherwise mistreated. They could have been born with, or developed, a psychological disorder that was difficult or impossible for them to manage.
In my more thoughtful, empathetic moments, I imagine sitting across from them on one side of the germ-smudged glass of a prison visiting room and wanting to give them a hug, tell them someone understands, or help them feel a fraction of the love they perhaps never received as children.
I want to tell them I’m so sorry that the one shot they got at life turned out to be such a mess, and that it’s the greatest tragedy of all that none of the bad memories, none of the wounds they suffered, can be erased. They can’t start over from the beginning and have fun-filled, carefree childhoods, parents who treat them as if they love them, and adult experiences they can not just appreciate, but cherish.
And then, when I imagine that the person they killed was someone I love, I envision my next thought being, “Oh, well. You’re a grown-up now, and you had the opportunity to seek help. Hope the injection makes you feel like your veins are on fire.”
4. A society that witnesses the punishment of a rule breaker is one that can come together as a closer, law-biding unit. If we say, “You hurt someone, and that’s wrong,” that means we’re also saying, “Not hurting others is right.” Setting aside the torch-carrying mass hysteria we tend to engage in at any given opportunity, punishing bad behavior can be a beautiful and unifying activity.
Now and then, I like to think that someday, somewhere, Fred Phelps will show up at the wrong military funeral and the family will be armed with bats, which they will promptly use to chase him out of town.
Almost all of us know, by now, that the arguments claiming the death penalty is a deterrent are not only erroneous, but disingenuous. And no one cares that it’s more expensive to keep someone on death row than it is to give them a regular life sentence. There are some arguments you can’t win with logic, because people’s emotions are simply too powerful.
We don’t want to deter, we don’t want to reform, we don’t want to save money – we want to hurt. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, because often, the people on death row are people who have murdered innocent people.
And we don’t like the murder of innocent people. They’re innocent.
As are some people on death row.
Yes, I relish the thought of electrocuting a serial-killer and would feel not a second of guilt about it, but that even one innocent person may have already been, or could in the future be, “accidentally” killed by our imperfect system is the single irrefutable reason the death penalty is a barbaric measure that has no place in our civilized society.
What if that person were your father?