I used to listen to the grown-ups on my street discussing the grown-up stuff, usually men, in their undershirts, with their age-smudged service-time tattoos on full display— think anchors and mermaids. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these weren’t reasoned or nuanced debates at all: they usually went something like “yeah, dey need to lock em all up and throw away da key, ya hear me!” or “der all just a bunch of crooks! All a dem!” or “dats how dem people is!” And then someone would say “Ya know what, dey oughta be shot, dats what I say!” No one could top that one. ‘Dey’ could be criminals, politicians, people of other races or religions. Our instinct for vengeance, it seems, runs deep. We had a neighbor down the street who would sit on his porch wearing fishnet shirts, smoking skinny cigars, dispensing wisdom and lewd jokes and he would always say “you have to stand for something or you’ll fall for everything!”
So I decided I needed to stand for something so I could talk grown-up stuff too. Capital punishment seemed like a good place to start. I have no idea how this came to be, but I’m guessing this was the kind of issue that would get a teenager’s attention; maybe I heard it on TV— we never had any magazines or newspapers or even books. I do remember it was during Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president. Getting ‘tough on crime’ was one of the themes. Anybody who’s ever watched A Christmas Story knows the importance of themes. The idea went something like this: punishment should fit the crime and the death penalty will keep people from murdering people. Yeah. I wasn’t old enough to vote yet, but I felt I needed to think as deeply as I could about the political issues of the time and come up with an opinion. I had a vision of myself as becoming a serious-minded citizen with well thought-out opinions on everything that mattered. So then I could argue— I’m sorry debate— with everyone who disagreed with me and kumbaya with everyone who did. I would be so cool. Everybody would look at me like I was a fucking genius. Maybe I’d even be forced to be the president of the United States.
I decided I was for the death penalty. Yes. And so now I had my very own opinion and that opinion was if you kill someone, your punishment would be death; after all, the person you killed can’t walk around, eat ice cream, watch TV— so you shouldn’t either. You don’t get that. I was happy to see states bringing back the death penalty after a moratorium that followed the Supreme Court decision saying the death penalty amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, but I was super disappointed when I found out they were going to put people to death by injection. Injection! This is not like getting your tonsils out. You need something more fitting; I thought the best solution was for the punishment to match the crime— if you stabbed someone to death, then you should be stabbed to death— something like that. What would Zeus do? Or Athena? Not an injection! If someone strangles me to death, I certainly don’t want them to have their favorite last meal and a shot. No way. I loved my new opinion; if I could have framed it and put it up on the wall, I would have.
One day (of course) I was outside and my mom and I were talking to our neighbor Rose. Rose was a really funny lady— she was maybe four foot eight with the whitest and tightest perm I’ve ever seen and the whitest dentures ever— made all the more vivid by her tan complexion and parched-earth skin texture. She was from Sicily and had come over with her husband I think sometime after the first World War. I don’t remember. She looked like she was a thousand years old. She had a habit of using Italian words when English ones were ‘no good enough’ for her. I don’t know how we got on to the subject of capital punishment, but we did. I was excited to share my genius opinion. And she agreed with me: “Yeah, like in Sicily we do this way, how you call it?” With that she looked at me and drew her index finger across her neck and made a kind of ripping sound. “Yeah, ha, ha, this how we do it, eye for eye, nobody fool around, finito!”
Eye for eye?
Those three words went through my mind like a bolt of lightening. Ugh. Months of careful, reasoned thought, vaporized. Nothing left but a small pile of intellectual ashes. I am stupid. If killing a person is wrong, then killing a person for killing a person is wrong no matter how ‘humanely’ it’s done. It’s revenge disguised as punishment— just like in Sicily. How did I not see that? Maybe I was caught up in how I would feel if I, or someone I loved, was murdered and how the murderer doesn’t deserve to have a life when the person he or she killed can’t have theirs: “now you’re gonna die too!” I hadn’t realized that if this happened I would be a murderer myself and worse— I would be a revenge murderer. When ‘the punishment fits the crime,’ you end up in an endless circle of retribution and no chance for redemption. If your child bites someone, do you bite them back?
I am heartened to see the decline of the death penalty but I don’t understand why, when so many countries are doing just fine without it, we still cling to it? Perhaps it’s just too easy to use as a political ploy for the modern cowboy— how else can you show how tough you are but to strap someone to a table and give them an injection? I find it hard to believe it has ever prevented a murder. Over the years, I’ve watched so many documentaries about murderers I’m half-embarassed. Some folks are so enraged, obsessed, or strung-out on something that, at that moment, they are beyond the reach of reason, some are convinced that they have planned the perfect murder— these usually seem to come from greed— there is no way they will be caught, others kill for ideological reasons, or a voice in their head, sometimes you have something like the murders Truman Capote wrote about In Cold Blood: a simple plan goes awry in the hands of mentally unstable people. I can’t see any of these folks stopping for a minute and saying “Gee whiz, I could get the death penalty for this.” I often wonder if we will soon learn that all murders— and crime for that matter— are a presentation of some sort of mental illness or imbalance. Why would a normal person kill someone? I don’t ever have to choose not to kill someone. Of course, the counter argument is that the death penalty is ineffective because it is not swift or brutal enough. The Taliban and ISIS would certainly agree with that argument. And old Sicily too.
I had started this piece a few years ago and was prodded to finish it after reading a Time article about lethal injection. As I was working on this, there were news reports of a botched execution in Colorado and another about FBI errors in death penalty cases. The new theme is ‘if we can’t do it right, we shouldn’t do it at all.’ It would be better if we ended the death penalty because if we think it is wrong to kill someone, then it is wrong to kill someone back. Cause den two a dem people is dead.
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