Like sexuality, like God and patriotism, like voting and like getting to Cuba from America, the death penalty is complicated.
Complicated in theory, not difficult when enacted. It's easy to flip a switch, push a plunger or yank a noose.
The executioner and the man signing the decree both can carry out their jobs, drive home to eat dinner, fuck their wives and feel good knowing they rid us of vermin. That is, if they even do that kind of math.
It's more self-protective, easier, not to. But we should be more considerate of the nuances of execution.
It has nothing to do with the faux Biblical slam chant of an eye for an eye and everything to do with our penal system's intrinsic failure of rehabilitation and its penchant therefore to warehouse men and women until inmates kill and rape one another, are released with portable mental cell blocks or are ultimately executed by us in states that won't commute death sentences.
I am no hand-holder. Real punishment to me has always meant life in prison without parole. Ever. But not erasure.
This might be an oversimplification, but execution seems so easy for everyone. Ashes to the trash and dust to dust.
The jury's still out for me on the death penalty. It seems, however, we have a habit of executing the criminal's former self and not his clear and present danger.
The Dec. 13 execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams at San Quentin was akin to murdering the very concept of rehabilitation. Here's a man who did the work but who was executed anyway, like shaking an Etch A Sketch to rid the screen of an elaborate scribble.
Williams, 51 and the long-ago founder of the Crips, had, like many inmates, civilized and rehabilitated himself through a religious conversion to God or Allah and via the kind of outreach inmates undertake once they're adopted as a cause celebre by a community of well-meaning and crusading (usually white) postmodern missionaries with Internet access, grants and grassroots organizing abilities.
Williams was sentenced in 1981 for shooting to death four people, crimes he denied until he died.
Before the frothing conversation about man's inhumanity to man that centered around whether California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should grant Williams clemency, before Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx played Williams in a made-for-cable movie and before "Save Tookie" rallies and "Save Tookie" T-shirts appeared, Williams tried reversing the evil that drove him to form one of America's most reviled, feared and powerful street gangs in the first place.
He penned a series of children's books and a memoir called Blue Rage, Black Redemption and doled out advice to youths reminiscent of his formerly violent self through a Web site run by supporters. There were Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
It all would've been a cliché if it all weren't true.
Ultimately, Williams had to be executed because we have no idea how to even reconcile that level of redemption. As Williams himself told Mother Jones four yeas ago, his post-gang deeds were "something that I could give back. Because, let's face it, myself and others in the gang life have done nothing but destroy the community."
If execution is based on killing a man's former self, then it means that we, the allegedly civilized, haven't caught up to the very civilized notion that a formerly evil, angry and murderous man can somehow atone and then redeem himself.
This absence of belief in the fundamental change occurring between a man and his god is also a fundamental absence of faith in the evidence of things unseen. It therefore breeds and aims skepticism directly at the presence of God, the one entity that most staunch supporters of the death penalty are in full agreement on.
And if this is so, how do we conveniently saddle God with so much of what's unbelievable while claiming and clamoring to believe in miracles, especially at this seasonal observation of the greatest of miracles? Couldn't it also be miraculous that Williams had changed?
All of this intellectual posturing does nothing for the victims' families, I know. But I wonder if they feel any closer to their dead loved ones standing now in the valley of the shadow of Williams' execution.
When Schwarzenegger prays over Christmas dinner with Maria and his brood, I hope he prays to understand why he finally and fatally judged Williams' redemption as insufficient.
Next time I pray that I'll pray for understanding. Because I don't understand the death penalty.
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