December 13, 2005

Vengence Is Mine, saith the Lord.

Vengence is mine, saith the Lord.

Not ours.

We are not a nation of vengence. We do not kill criminals merely to "get back at them." We do it as a deterrent. So that other potentially violent criminals will consider the consequences and rethink their actions.

Yeah, right.

It's not about our wanting to kill them .... and yet we put them on suicide watch during those final days so that they won't steal our opportunity to watch them die. God forbid they die of a heart attack three days before their scheduled execution!

It's not about our wanting to get back at them .... and yet when an Indiana man asks for a 90-day delay in his execution date (note that he was not asking to have the execution commuted, but just to have the date shifted) so that he could donate his liver to his dying sister (a 48-year-old mother and grandmother), his request was denied. It was to be a split liver transplant, because of the unique nature of the situation. As Eric Meslin, director of Indiana University's Center for Bioethics, explained: "You can't donate a liver before you die, because that would kill you and that gets in the way of the state killing you. And you can't donate organs after you die, because the method of execution would render the organs unusable." The split-liver technique takes just a piece of the liver, allowing both the donor and recipient to regenerate a healthy liver.

The best part of that story? The quote, that I remember from over six months ago when this story was news: Johnson could recover in the two week to two month period typically required to recuperate from the procedure, and eventually be "healthy enough to be put to death."

The whole concept of being "healthy enough to be put to death." How absurd. It makes me think of The Princess Bride, when Westley wakes up in the Pit of Despair:

He begins tending Westley's wounds. Westley winces.
ALBINO: Don't even think -- (A hack, sputter, cough - now his voice seems normal again) -- don't even think about trying to escape. The chains are far too thick. And don't dream of being rescued either. The only way in is secret. And only the Prince, the Count, and I know how to get in and out.
WESTLEY: Then I'm here till I die?
ALBINO (working away): Till they kill you. Yeah.
WESTLEY: Then why
bother curing me?
ALBINO: The Prince and the Count always insist on everyone being healthy before they're broken.
WESTLEY: So it's to be torture.
From the Albino: a nod.
But we don't torture, right? I mean, that's why we fought so hard to keep that provision out of the amendment, right? We would never dream of torturing anyone, but just in case ....

Oh, and about Gregory Johnson, the Indiana inmate? No extension granted, no transplant allowed. [I remember a relative of the victim saying that "My [sister?] didn't get another chance at life, why should his sister?" Yes, because, of course, it's all his sister's fault and she should be the one punished.]

{As an aside ... In Googling for information, I discovered "Dead Man Eating – Chronicling the Culinary Cravings of the Condemned," a weblog listing of last meals, with the subtitle of "Looking for a killer meal?" It's got everything from audio of the meal request to a Dining Guide. You can even buy t-shirts and thongs with the logo of a hung stick person with a dripping ice cream cone in one hand. (In case you didn't realize, hanging is still an option in three states, if the inmate so chooses, or if the "normal" methods are impractical.) Mmmmm, classy. [Not sure if having the link is the right thing to do, but after much internal back-and-forth, I figure I'll let you make your own call on this site.]}

But really, it's all about deterrence. Not revenge, or "eye for an eye," or paybacks, or anything barbaric and uncivilized like that.

That's fine. You want it to be all about deterrence, that's great.

But is that really what it's all about?

This summer I was at the public library, poking around the Young Adult section for some of the cool books I remember loving not too long ago. I came across this book called Life in Prison and, knowing that I'd be teaching Social Justice in the fall, pulled it off the shelf, took it home, and read it.

I knew nothing of the book or its author until I read it, and I remember being struck at the heartfelt honesty of this former gangbanger and his efforts to keep kids from making the same mistakes he made. He could speak to the appeal that life in prison has to kids, and he dispelled each one of the myths that made it "the cool place to go." From his undisputed first-hand experience, he presented a compelling image of what prison was really about.

I know some question the "validity" of his redemption, and I can't speak at all to what's in the man's heart. What I can speak to is the fact that his writing destroyed much of the "glamour" of prison life. And I can only guess that his presentation of prison would have a far greater impact on some kid than would any lecture that I could ever give them.

After all, who knows more about gangs? The co-founder of one of the most notorious street gang rivalries, or Sister Stephanie, the suburban white girl?

Who are the kids gonna hear as "the expert"?

But it's all about deterrence, right? Of course it is. Why would you think any differently?

So basically ... killing a man who allegedly killed four other people is the best way to show kids not to join gangs? Obviously.

That is, unless you consider the fact that we have just silenced one of the most credible authorities on the dangers of life on the street.

Whether you believe that he truly reformed or you think it was just an act to make him look good, even if you think everything he wrote was "just words, saying the right thing" – whatever his reason for writing those words, the fact of the matter is, the words were written. Those words, written by the founder of the Crips, are what the kids will read. Not all the grown-up skepticism and distrust. No matter what his motive, the message is out there.

Deter: To prevent or discourage from acting, as by means of fear or doubt

So, basically, we execute people to teach everyone else a lesson.

Two ways to view this event of 3:38 EST this morning:
»»»» We killed a man who killed a man, or
»»»» we took away his ability to say, "I screwed up. Big time. Please, learn from my mistakes."

Yeah, that's pretty great pedogogical technique. I should try that in my classroom. "Girls, whatever you do, please do NOT get assistance from someone who took this class before unless they got a perfect score on absolutely everything. There is nothing to be gained by hearing what their trouble spots were." Of course, where would that put my attempts to clear up for them the points that tripped me up when I studied?

Rest in peace, Tookie.
May the message outlive the man.