(We Become What We Hate. . . )
1.Two Wrongs Don’t Equal Justice The ultimate question raised by the death penalty is: How do death penalty advocates resolve the contradiction of expressing justifiable outrage at murder, then demand that the state be involved in retaliatory murder? Can we repudiate one action with the same action?
The death penalty is violence. And as Martin Luther King warned us, “the ultimate weakness of violence is it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate can-not drive out hate; only love can do that.”
To those who defend the death penalty with the famous ‘eye for an eye’ verse in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus said: “You have heard how it was said, ‘You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But, I say this to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
Mohandas Gandhi, the champion of nonviolence, was succinct: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Congressional Representative Henry Gonzalez introduced a House Joint Resolution to end the death penalty in the U.S. in 1995. Following are excerpts:
"Brutal homicide excites a passion within us that demands retribution. The atrocity of the crime must not cloud our judgment and we must not let our anger undermine the wisdom of our rationality. We cannot allow ourselves to punish an irrational action with an equally irrational retaliation. Murder is wrong, whether it is committed by an individual or by the state.
Proponents argue that some crimes simply deserve death. This argument is ludicrous. If a murderer deserves death, why then do we not burn the arsonist, or rape the rapist. Our justice system does not provide for such punishments because society comprehends that it must be founded on principles different from those it condemns. How can we condemn killing and condone execution?"
2. It is Dangerous to the Human Spirit and to Society While watching a movie with my two children, which included a mob-incited lynching of a runaway slave, it dawned on me that the modern use of the death penalty symbolically continues the public lynchings from decades gone by. While the state may use more “modern” methods of execution than a rope hanging from a tree, death is death, whether by lethal injection or firing squad.
I often wonder, do we not allow the media to film executions out of respect for the person being executed, or because we are ashamed of what we do? Do we censor the filming of this procedure because the clip might appear on TV’s in Europe where the death penalty has been eliminated? Are we afraid of being called hypocrites, talking human rights out of one side of our mouth, and sanctioning state executions out of the other?
From my experience at three executions, two in Oregon, and one in California, I have observed the effect of the death penalty on our society. Ordinary citizens take on the spirit of violence displayed in lynch mobs. The days during which these executions occurred were among the most depressing of my life—not only because a person was killed in the name of justice by our government, but because of the outrageous behavior displayed by supporters of capital punishment. Clearly, when government promotes retaliatory violence, it leads some of those governed, especially the young, to view violence as a legitimate way to solve problems.
On one of those occasions, in 1991, my two-year-old son and I walked from San Francisco to San Quentin State Prison to protest California’s first execution in thirty years. As the march drew close to San Quentin, the beautiful spring day took on a carnival-like atmosphere. Death penalty supporters were driving crazily, honking their horns, drinking beer, screaming obscenities, and ‘partying’ to celebrate the impending electrocution of a ‘monster’ who had lost his humanity. Witnessing that scene, it was hard to tell who had lost their humanity more, the one about to be executed or those celebrating the event with the excitement of a Super Bowl party. This was not a celebration of earned victory or human triumph. It was a celebration of violence and death.
The death penalty is hazardous to our nation. Marietta Jaeger acknowledges that victim families have “every right to the normal, valid human response of rage. However, to legislate that same gut-level desire for revenge has the same deleterious effect on the community as it does to individuals. It degrades, dehuman-izes, and debilitates us as a society.”
3. How many innocent, executed people does it take? The death penalty is unique among all criminal punishments because, once implemented, it is impossible to reverse. If an error is made, it cannot be corrected. It follows that, since humans do not have the capacity to reverse an execution, they have no right implementing this ultimate punishment.