The U.S. Department of Justice is planning to resume the execution of death row inmates for the first time since 2003. Many of the states have been at it since then—Texas has put to death 362 damaged souls since 2000, but the announcement, in the age of Trump and Attorney General William Barr, has nonetheless stirred up an old debate.
I’ve never been on death row nor can I say that I know anyone who knows anyone who has. So, like most of us, I presume, much of what I know about what it means to await execution comes from television and the movies. I also know no one associated with a capital crime, no friend or family member associated whatsoever with the commission of a capital crime and, as far as I know, on the victim side of the human-to-human violence equation, no friend or family member of mine has been personally touched by the various horrors associated with capital crimes.
In all my blissful ignorance, I fully expect to live my life without ever encountering the reality of any genuine aspect of the downside of human potential (if potential can be measured in such a way as to account for, in all of us, our capacity to harm one another.)
This is my way of admitting that I am fully aware that I am darn lucky to have avoided the worst of things; which makes me wholly ignorant of the worst of things. Although, as I mentioned, there is television.
There is also history. For instance, I can tell you with all authority that the death penalty in this country has not always been called the death penalty. Some just called it lynching. Lest you see a grave difference between the death penalty and lynching, I’ll remind you that many of the 4,000 lynchings that took place in this country between the Civil War and World War II were carried out, “On the Courthouse Lawn.”
In some cases, thousands of community members gathered, drinking whiskey and lemonade and consuming snacks often associated with carnivals, while the torture, mutilation, and execution of a fellow citizen was carried out. The community atmosphere and the proximity of the courthouse gave these festivals a certain aura of officialdom that proclaimed to others in the community that being black carries with it immense pressure to give grave deference to whiteness. The harshest example for me derives from some of the old photographs of these events, many of them printed on postcards, where whole families with young children are lynching together to learn about American justice.
Public terror lynching is no longer approved as it was when many in the government struggled even with the idea of outlawing the practice. However, other, more formal executions have become public spectacles themselves. In 1927, Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed by electrocution after being convicted of first degree murder; although quite a few people then, and many more now (historians included) have determined that they were wrongfully convicted. The problem for these two is that they were flat-out-guilty of being anarchists.
While often associated with terrorism and violence, anarchists simply believe that government as we know it is detrimental to our health and that society should be based upon people creating their own institutions and getting along with one another in the spirit of human community. Anarchy may not be the most practical method of organizing society but it sure sounds nice. Either way, Sacco and Vanzetti simply did not approve of the government that murdered them. Given how things turned out, we can hardly blame them for feeling this way.
In 1953, American citizens Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg were executed—electricity again—for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. Like Sacco and Vanzetti, there was some doubt as to their guilt at the time, but history has pretty much determined that the government got it right on this one. The Rosenbergs held important information about American technology and actually did communicate with the Russians, which, now that I mention it, just doesn’t seem to be as wrong as it used to be. There are many things like this that used to be wrong and now no longer are; like talking to a white woman while being black.
Now that the Justice Department is resuming executions, it seems as if they (we) are looking to inflict the ultimate punishment upon five men who have done some horrible things: all have been convicted, among other things, of murdering children. These five all seem prime candidates for the societal implementation of suffering; having left a great deal of carnage and continued human suffering in the wake of their existence.
A quick Google search reveals that maybe 60 percent of us support the death penalty for the worst of crimes. Although dropping this statistic in the middle of my thinking here, begs the question as to whether this type of thing should be settled with a vote.
For example, lynch mobs are, by definition, popular. It’s right there in the photographs; captured moments of Americans engaging in happy-go-lucky hate. More than one of these black-and-white images reveals an adult holding a child above the crowd so that the youngster can get an impressionable look at the charred black corpse.
With an eye toward the history that will be written, I wonder what they will make of us; what they will make of our participation or even our indifference to the acts carried out in our name.
Proponents of capital punishment argue that it deters crime. Perhaps. On the other hand, it seems obvious that taking out the worst of humanity in this way is an act of revenge. The inherent problem here, and this may define my position on the matter more than any horror story of the crime committed, is that, in virtually all other aspects of our lives, particularly those influenced by our worst moments of anger, revenge begets only revenge.
I don’t even go to church.