When the State of California executed Stanley "Tookie" Williams last month, the news media briefly pulled their heads out of the sand and prompted us to think about the death penalty and the possibility of redemption behind bars. Then, five minutes later, they went back to reporting on Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
Apparently, most Americans care more about the sex lives of celebrities than the injustices that are being funded by our tax dollars. Death row inmates aren't as sexy as movie stars, and most don't have Tookie's star power. Unless it's being glamorized on a "Law and Order" episode, the death penalty is simply dismissed as a boring partisan political football.
But the death penalty is not about left vs. right. It's about wrong vs. right. It's about the fact that two wrongs don't make a right. It's about human rights, and it's about human decency. And, while Americans spend their time worrying about what Angelina is doing with Brad, governors across the country keep on signing death warrants.
Because of this apathy, the United States is the only Western democracy that still claims for itself the right to execute its citizens. Each year since 1976, three more nations have added their names to the list of countries that have abolished the death penalty. This worldwide trend towards abolition of the death penalty reflects the growing awareness that there are alternative punishments that are effective and which do not involve state-sponsored killing. But America does not care.
Amnesty International describes the death penalty as "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights." By retaining the death penalty, the United States finds itself increasingly out of step with the rest of the world, aligned on this issue only with such backward nations as Afghanistan, Botswana, Cameroon, Chad, Cuba, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, and Mongolia. Furthermore, as a moral litmus test, it is interesting to note that most major religious denominations in the United States have statements opposing the death penalty. But Brad and Angie are so much more alluring.
So Americans don't waste their time thinking about it. When the subject comes up, they mindlessly parrot the tired old death penalty myths:
Myth #1: An eye for an eye, rah-rah-rah.
Logically, it makes little sense to use execution to condemn killing. Such an act by the state is the mirror image of the criminal's willingness to use physical violence against a victim. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of "justice". When someone is convicted of rape, we do not turn that person over to an official State Rapist to be treated in kind as punishment. Therefore, it is difficult to understand why some people find it appropriate to kill in order to show that killing is wrong. It offers society not further protection but further brutalization.
Myth #2: It's about justice.
Studies have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. For example, a recent study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. Where is the justice in that?
Myth #3: It serves as a deterrent.
The death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime. It is incorrect and naive to assume that people who commit such serious crimes as murder do so after rationally calculating the consequences. Murders are often committed in moments when emotion overcomes reason, or under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or mental illness. Moreover, those who do commit premeditated serious crimes may decide to proceed despite the risks in the belief that they will not be caught. The key to deterrence in such cases is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest, and conviction. The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime.
Myth #4: It brings closure to victims' families.
Not all families are thirsty for revenge. In fact, so many families oppose the death penalty that some have formed an organization called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, through which they actively work to abolish the death penalty.
Murder is always a despicable act and a terrible tragedy. But killing the murderer will not bring the victim back.
A striking example of the growing worldwide public support against the death penalty is the illumination of the Colosseum in Rome whenever a death sentence is suspended or commuted anywhere in the world. It is also illuminated whenever a country establishes a moratorium on executions or abolishes the death penalty. Perhaps someday America will wake up, and the Colosseum will light up to celebrate the abolition of the death penalty in the United States, thereby symbolizing American society's newly enlightened approach to criminal justice. In the meantime, we must work to promote justice, not revenge, one case at a time.
Perhaps Mahatma Ghandi said it best: "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."