Dead Man Talking

Editorial by Tom Dooley


One thing Chris and I have never agreed on is the issue of capital punishment. In my inner circle of relationships, there are three distinct positions. One ascribes to the "tooth for a tooth" philosophy. Those who ascribe to this belief think people guilty of horrible crimes should have those same crimes visited upon them. I am considerably less vengeful, but still think that the crime of murder should be punished with death. Chris, my best friend and coeditor of Eclectica, thinks we shouldn’t have a death penalty at all.

The reason I’m writing about this issue is that I just watched Dead Man Walking, the Tim Robbins film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. I’m sure most of you have seen this movie, so I’ll spare the explication, beyond saying that the movie provides a remarkably vivid portrayal of a man on death row. As far as I could tell, Tim Robbins wanted to be as objective as possible while still taking an overall stand against capital punishment. The beauty of this film, though, is that its artistic vision is clear enough to skate right through any political intentions. As viewers, we’re pushed and pulled by the many sides of this tragedy, so that by the end we are forced to truly empathize with all the parties involved. I, at least, felt real compassion for Penn’s character as his death approached, but at the same time was sufficiently distanced from him by the terrible acts he committed that I had no choice but to view his suffering with a degree of diffidence. In the end, I must admit I came out no more or less against capital punishment than I was before.

As Penn’s character says when he’s asked if he has any last words, killing is wrong no matter who does it. No matter what the reason. The question is, is that wrong warranted? Would there be an even greater wrong if the first wrong were not committed? I believe that in the case of Dead Man Walking, and in the case of real-life murderers who have been tried and found guilty of atrocities sufficient to warrant the death sentence, the greater wrong would be in letting their crimes go unpunished. It isn’t about prevention. It isn’t about revenge. It’s about justice. If you commit first degree murder, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood, you’ve robbed a person of everything they’ll ever be. By taking another’s life, you’ve given up your right to your own.

If a child misbehaves, parents have to have the strength of will to discipline that child. It isn’t always easy to do so. Usually, it’s easier to make excuses, to side with the child. Parents want to love their children, not hurt them. They want to grant second chances, pardons, paroles. They don’t want to admit a child of their creation could do something wrong. But failing to set boundaries and enforce them consistently is almost certainly going to yield more and more terrible results. The same is true on a societal level. Killing a person, even a cold-blooded murderer, is an awful thing to do, especially when it’s calculated, intentional, and the person to be killed knows what is coming far in advance. But it’s something we have to be strong enough to do. I don’t think we should approach this task callously either. We should never forget that when we execute someone, there is blood on our hands as well. It may be necessary blood, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

Consider Sean Penn’s character again. By the final scene, there is a real sense that this is a person who has grown tremendously. He has learned what love and compassion and empathy are. He’s learned to look at life beyond the self-centered confines of his own existence. He’s learned to take responsibility for his actions, and learned to regret those actions. He has fully realized how wrong it is to take another person’s life. All of which makes it all the more tragic that this person who has come so far must now be put to death. All of which would never have happened, however, if this person hadn’t had to finally come to terms with the consequences of his actions. It took death to give him a crash-course on life. If you believe in reincarnation, you’d have to think such a person would be a lot better off the next time around. If you believe in Christianity, you’d have to think his eternity would be a lot less fiery. If you’re an atheist, you’d have to think it was good that before this person died he became a "complete" human being. At least in the Hollywood realm of Dead Man Walking, the death penalty seems to have been most beneficial to the recipient of that penalty.

It’s important to realize the truths behind the arguments against the death penalty. It shouldn’t be about revenge or retribution. When people say we should burn serial killers alive, or torture them to death in various ways, I have to ask, "Who’s going to do the torturing?" It’s one thing to feel rage over something a murderer has done, but I think it’s quite another to become a sick freak yourself in order to properly punish the offender. And we know from Batman that revenge just leaves you feeling even emptier inside. Anybody doubting it’s true?

Certainly, capital punishment shouldn’t be promoted as a deterrent to murder. The people who commit atrocities often say they already feel dead inside. They don’t give a damn about consequences. Plus, if they were acting rationally, so as to be able to weigh such things as consequences, they probably wouldn’t be going around committing atrocities in the first place. No, people who commit these kinds of crimes are going to commit them no matter what society threatens to do about it. Which is perhaps another reason for why we SHOULD have the death penalty. These people are damaged beyond repair—as a matter of sheer practicality, society needs to take them out of circulation.

People against the death penalty will argue that it’s cheaper to keep murderers "out of circulation" by putting them in jail than by putting them to death. Well, this argument is well taken. Obviously, steps need to be taken to make capital punishment less expensive!

The best argument against capital punishment, though, is that of responsibility. Chris has argued quite persuasively that society creates these monsters and the conditions within which they operate, and it’s a serious shirking of responsibility for society to turn around and heartlessly dispose of the bad fruits it spawns. I agree that as a society we cannot look to capital punishment as a cure, or even a treatment, for the evils we’ve generated. The death penalty is a consequence, a just reward, and nothing more. If there is a cure for murderers and rapists, and really criminals of any degree, it is to make sure that every child grows up in a loving and disciplined environment. We must never confuse these issues.


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