A Sacrifice for the Monkey God
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the death penalty. I'm sure there will be more.
But in all of it I've yet to hear what I consider the most important point in the whole issue.
People write about how Tsarnaev (I could go and look up the correct spelling, if I cared) is guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he does not appear remorseful, that he's a jihadi...that he uses the wrong toothpaste for all I know.
None of those are - in my opinion - the most important issue here.
Because all of those arguments are about Tsarnaev.
And I dismiss them because...it's not about Tsarnaev. It's about you.
Yes, you, America. You'll be shocked, I'm sure, to learn that something is all about you.
You see, we've got a few problems with the death penalty. First, it's been proven that, estimated conservatively, 4% of the people on Death Row are innocent of the crime for which they are condemned (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/28/death-penalty-study-4-percent-defendants-innocent).
Four percent. That means for every 100 people on whom you pull the switch, 4 of them are being killed for something they didn't do.
To phrase it another way, four times out of every hundred The State is guilty of - at least - negligent homicide.
And since it's America we're talking about, a representative democracy in which the people wield the ultimate authority (see how I got all the way through that without laughing myself sick?) The State is you, America. The people are The State, which means that for every hundred people on whom you pull the switch, each person of voting age shares in the guilt for four negligent homicides.
So that's one problem.
Another is the way that The State deals death to those for whom it deems death to be appropriate. Through my connections at the Opera (hey, I'm drunk with power, people) I got the opportunity to chat with Sister Helen Prejean. You'll recall that Sister Helen wrote Dead Man Walking which, apart from being a terrific book and a stunning movie, was adapted into a jaw-dropping opera.
Anyway, in a lecture preceding the performance of the opera, she brought up the fact that in its application of the death penalty, the United States is practicing torture.
And again, you're shocked. I know. But it's true. Mock execution is regarded around the world as a form of psychological torture. Mock execution is when you make someone believe that you are going to kill them - then you don't.
And every time a person in the U.S. is prepped to die, dressed, fed, shaved, moved to the waiting-for-death cell, sometimes moved to the actual execution chamber...then reprieved by a phone call or something and moved back into the we're-not-quite-ready-to-kill-you cell, they were made to believe that they were about to be killed. That's a mock execution, by every definition.
This happens at least once in nearly every execution, and sometimes several times. Several times we convince someone that we're going to kill them, then we pull them back so we can do it again. That's torture.
And I think that somewhere there's something in U.S. law that says you can't torture people before you kill them. Isn't there? Oh yeah. Cruel and Unusual Punishment. Which means that The State is violating its own Constitution with every execution.
So that's another problem.
Finally, there's the fact that as a deterrent, the death penalty just doesn't work. No, it doesn't. Y'see, there are three types of people who commit murder:
- the calculating, premeditating murderer. The death penalty does not deter them because they don't think it will be applied to them. They think they can outsmart it.
- the person who is compelled to commit murder, and cannot resist the impulse because of something broken in his or her mind. Mark Chapman.
- the person who is so momentarily angry that their anger constitutes a form of insanity, during which they are incapable of considering the possibly of capital punishment, or remembering that it even exists.
So it doesn't work as a deterrent, it's torture, and it's misapplied four percent of the time.
Then why do we do it?
Because we like it. Because we are angry, and we think - no, we don't think. We feel - that hitting back will make us feel better. We know that we can't bring the victims back, but we can damn' sure kill the killer. We can sacrifice them to the monkey god of our own hurt and anger, with the expectation that when the sacrifice is made then the pain we feel will go away.
Except that's not how it works, either. Sister Helen writes that she has met with the families of many victims of capital crimes, and none of them have said they felt better after the murderer was executed.
Getting back to that four percent, are you willing to take your share of the guilt in killing four people who didn't do it in order to get the ninety-six who did? I've asked that question of people who shuffle, and hem and haw and tell me that "Darren, I just don't have an answer for that."
Well, get one. Get it quick. Innocent people are dying.
I can loan you my answer, if you like: I would happily order ninety-six heinous murderers to remain in prison for the rest of their lives if by doing so I would avoid my share of the responsibility for killing four innocent people.
Like I said, this is not about Tsarnaev. This is about you. And killing people that are not a threat to you isn't good for you, America.
Tsarnaev killed people who were no threat to him. That was wrong. Now the United States of America intends to kill Tsarnaev, who is no threat to it. That's still wrong.
The only time it can be remotely possible to justify killing is when to do so would keep something even worse from happening.
Capital punishment doesn't keep something worse from happening. It just doesn't. It doesn't deter killers, it's torture, and at least four percent of the time it tortures and kills people who did not commit the crime that serves as our justification for what we are doing to them.
And so, America, I'd like you to stop it. It's bad for you. You'll feel better after you quit.
If you agree, and you'd like to help bring this about, you can do what I do: give ten dollars a month to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (http://www.ncadp.org/torchbearers).
This isn't about Tsarnaev. It's about you. I care about you, and I know that killing people that you don't need to kill is bad for you.
Please stop it.
Darren Raleigh is an Emergency Medical Helicopter Pilot from Ankeny, Iowa. When not on-duty, he is a Celtic Harper, Singer and Storyteller (http://www.darrenraleigh.com). He has been a Torchbearer of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty since 2014. Join him and become a Torchbearer today.