Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Death Penalty: When Will the Violence Cease?

Yesterday’s execution of John Allen Muhammad, the so-called D.C. Sniper, sparked a series of debates all across the country. It reminded me of the week when Stanley “Tookie” Williams II was expected to be executed here in California. I was in my first year of college at the time, and the debate raged on well into our classrooms. Our English professor, whose focus in the class involved argumentative writing, asked us to compose a paragraph or two, taking a pro- or anti- stance on the topic. I was surprised to find that I was one of the few students who argued against the death penalty.

Some classmates thought that I was opposed to the execution because I admired and romanticized gang leaders or some such nonsense. Ridiculous! My position at the time was that Tookie had the potential to accomplish positive things behind prison bars, namely to continue to writing. During his time in jail, Tookie wrote several anti-gang, anti-drug and anti-violence books for the youth (reading ages ranging from four to twelve years old). The fact that Tookie had transformed himself into an advocate and positive role model for urban youth had merited, in my opinion, that he be given a pardon by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – but no dice. On December 12, 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger denied Williams’ clemency; the next day, Williams was executed. I sensed that some of my classmates had drawn some satisfaction from the incident; I couldn’t look at them the same way anymore.

In the years since, I’ve affirmed my position on the matter of capital punishment and the death penalty: I’m against it, one hundred percent of the time. People have tried to sway me from this stance with suppositions like “What if you were transplanted to the 1940’s and held a gun to the head of Hitler or Mussolini, men who have committed unspeakable atrocities? Would you pull the trigger?” This certainly raises some devil’s advocate thought processing, but the analogy is not equivalent to the discussion about the death penalty. Hitler and Mussolini were army leaders; and like the old saying goes, “all’s fair in love and war”; I don’t necessarily agree with that statement, but you get the point. Individuals like John Allen Muhammad and Stanley Tookie Williams II, while displaying traits of the inherently evil human characteristics shared by killers like Hitler and Mussolini, have been placed into custody by law enforcement and treated with the same levels of decency we’d expect prisoners of war to receive – or so we hope. Except this isn’t war and these aren’t soldiers. These are civilians who have erred in life and require penitence and rehabilitation. In many regards, the choice between keeping life-sentenced prisoners alive or executing them is analogous to the choice between recycling and garbage disposal.

In Los Angeles, the city I call home, pedestrians are an endangered species. It’s rare to find people walking down the street unless you’re in a trendy section of town. Accordingly, there also aren’t too many garbage cans or recycle bins on the street – they’re certainly more scarce than the ones you’ll find in sprawling metropolises like New York City. On many occasions, I’ve found myself walking along the street, scanning the horizon for a place to dispose of an empty soda can or a store receipt. Most of the time I have to walk at least two or three blocks before finding a garbage bin; coming across the elusive recycle bin is like encountering an oasis – unless you’re in West Hollywood or Santa Monica (hippie-ish neighborhoods). Why do I bother to make this extra effort? At the very core of the matter, I think conservation is important; overall, I ideally believe that ethics of reciprocity (i.e. the “Golden Rule”) are not limited to interpersonal interaction: it can apply to our relationship with our own individual environment and the environment of others as well. A little bit of effort preserves cleanliness and order – it’s not too much to ask. I don’t think this is such a radical position, do you? Using the same train of thought, re-analyzing capital punishment concludes that the death penalty is ineffective, counterintuitive, harmful and simply wrong for society.

As I see it, there are two options: we can either “recycle” life-sentenced prisoners or “dispose” of them with one swift kick into the gutter. I choose the former. Trash piles up and so do dead bodies. Even after they’ve been re-absorbed as terrestrial elements, the names and memories of those individuals “put down” by our justice system remain. And just like that, the cycle of violence repeats itself once more as a new stable of lifers are prepped to be taken out one by one. What does this accomplish? Various studies have shown that capital punishment does little if nothing to dissuade criminal behavior, and in many cases is counterintuitive to this very purpose. Additionally, while it may serve the purpose as a visceral sense of revenge, the death penalty will never fully wipe away the blood, scars and tears of murder or rape.

Abolishing the death penalty sets a standard by which you aim to uphold and value the preciousness of life. The question you need to ask yourself is this: How can a society which is so willful in applying the death penalty to prisoners right and left hope to attain everlasting peace and moral prosperity? The cycle of violence continues… Tupac Shakur spoke frequently about incarceration and death row in his raps. In closing, here is a portion of ‘Pac’s words which I feel are in accordance with my overarching positions on crime and punishment:
Let the L-rd judge the criminals/
If I die, I wonder if heaven got a ghetto/
- “I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto”
I got beef with a sick society that doesn't give a shit/
And they’re too quick to say goodbye to me/
- “16 on Death Row”