Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Death Penalty

I don’t have much to say on the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. I’m opposed to the death penalty in all cases, so Mr. Williams’ story is just another chapter in this sad tradition that fewer and fewer civilized nations continue to use.

My opposition to the death penalty isn’t based on sympathy for the criminal or a lack of it for the victims. I see it purely as an act of revenge and an admission that our justice and correctional system cannot do what it is supposed to do: rehabilitate our citizens who violate the laws. We would rather just get rid of the person who committed the act, move on to something else, and act like it never happened. Why else do we conduct it behind a wall of secrecy and in the middle of the night? If capital punishment was truly supposed to be a deterent to crime and an example for others who might consider committing a crime worthy of the death penalty, why don’t we do it in the town square and put it on TV? Because that would be horrifying, that’s why. So we do it as if we are ashamed of it, which we should be.

Ironically, the penal system we now have is an outgrowth of a Quaker idea. In the eighteenth century, punishment for crimes meant public flogging, execution, and a rather creative variety of public humiliations and tortures. In the early nineteenth century in Pennsylvania the Quakers came up with the idea that if prisoners were confined and allowed to reflect upon their life and repent (hence the word “penitentiary”) for their sins, they would become better citizens and be welcomed back into society. The idea was adopted and in 1829 the first penitentiary was opened in Philadelphia.

As anyone who has spent any time in the joint (or watched “Oz”) will tell you, the idea was naive at best. Penitentiaries are little more than the nation’s attic for keeping out of sight and out of mind the worst elements of our society, ignored by all but their families — if even them — and any thought of reformation and rehabilitation is left to the idealist. But no one has come up with a better idea and so the idea of “repentence” or “correction” is left to molder away in the same fashion as the prisoners.

No, I don’t have a better idea about how to deal with criminals. Better education and support for the least among us is a part of what we should be doing, but that will not empty the prisons or provide the occupants with a meaningful role in society now. But killing them in the dark of night because we can’t think of anything better to do is not the answer. No matter what the Bible says, vengence is not a divine right but a capitulation to the base instinct that our civilization was designed to overcome.