Thursday, April 9, 2015

Something or Nothing

I have got to quit watching the news. It has become an exercise in frustration. For that matter, I need to stay off Twitter too. I have to make myself stop checking the trending #Blackfish tweets. I have to accept that I can't free the orcas. I can't make Israel deal with Iran. I can't prevent tornadoes in the Midwest and I can't keep Chris Christie from tossing his extra large girth into the next Presidential election.

But two news items--running in strangely parallel tracks in my (admittedly perforated) brain--are occupying more that a fair share of my thoughts today.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Michael Slager are both facing the death penalty. The Boston marathon murderer and the cop that shot Walter Scott in the back eight times might both be on that Green Mile in the very near future.

I can't think of another issue that I feel so equally passionate as I do impotent. But we need to stop allowing our government to kill its citizens. You know what other countries have the death penalty? China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen. Aren't we in good company?

Aside--To those people who claim that they are restricting women's rights in the name of the sanctity of life, you better drag your ass out to protest the next government-sanctioned execution in your state. Because a life is a life, no matter how small. Right? Isn't that what you keep screaming in front of woman's health clinics?

Now, hear me out on this one. Let's knock out a couple of the common arguments for those that support executing the worst criminals.

Logistics: It costs the government exponentially more money to shepherd a felon through the appellate process than to house him for life. And speaking of him, capital punishment application has huge disparities when it comes to race or gender. If you are a black man who kills a white woman, you can count on a death sentence.

And then there is the lethal cocktail of drugs that are used to end a convicted felon's life. They must be concocted by compound pharmacies. These drugs do not exist in a single shot or pill. They must be brewed up from a combination of drugs invented to serve other purposes. Invented to benefit humans. Not to kill them. And as it turns out, these compound pharmacies are no longer eager to serve as the mixologists to the prison wardens. We are, very literally, running out of lethal injections. It's back to firing squads and electric chairs. Personally, I think we should return to the days of public hangings. I think we should all have to see what we, as a society, can do.

Ethics: Studies show that the long legal battles granted to a death row inmate will, very likely, extend the suffering and grief of the victim's family. And many families report that, after witnessing the execution of the felon that victimized them, they do not find the immediate peace or closure that they anticipated.

Study after study have also confirmed that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent. In one survey published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology reported that 88% of criminologists do not believe that capital punishment serves as any form of disincentive. So once again, I am pleased to report that George W. Bush was wrong again. The death penalty does not save lives.

I think the death penalty is only a few steps beyond catching a child hitting his sister and spanking him while you are telling him not to hit.

Mistakes: It must be the very definition of hubris to think that our legal system makes no mistakes. We have, in fact, executed men who were later exonerated. Since the early 1970s, more than 150 people have proven their innocence and were released from death row. Our justice system--while being the best in the world--is still susceptible to the very human condition of occasionally making mistakes. Mistakes happen. But should we, as a country, be meting out punishments that we cannot undo or make right?

And none of those things are why I am against the death penalty. It's because of this:

There are only two things that can happen to us when we die. There are only two things that can happen to the criminal after we execute him. Only two. It's a binary state. Only one of two things can ever happen.

Something or nothing.

Maybe something happens to us when we die. Maybe some form of a soul or spirit can leave this world and move on. To whatever on that might be. Maybe all of our energy floats away into the stratosphere and we dance in the stardust until what's next. If that is the case, why are we so eager to release the souls of forces that do humans so much harm? What is the rush to grant them release?

Maybe we have a soul that gets measured and judged based on what we do as we occupy our earthly bodies. Maybe those people who irreversibly harm other people will be plunged into an eternally fiery pit. Here's the thing about eternity. Eternity minus 50 years is still--magically--eternity. So what is the harm of letting a murderer sit in a prison cell until he dies from some reason other than a lethal injection.  Let him sit on his metal toilet, thinking about what he has done, until he is an old man.

Maybe nothing happens after we die. Maybe we are just gone. And if that's the case, are we not cheating victims, families, and society of the knowledge that the perpetrator that caused us harm has been spared the remaining years of his punishment?

Tsarnaev and Slager are both monsters, in their own ways. But what will we serve by executing them other than a fleeting feeling of vengeance. Are we really that small?

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