Friday, April 22, 2005

Eye for an eye: a very long post

Three days ago, Sister Prejean gave a talk at the University of Washington titled: “Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, Sister Prejean is the nun who wrote the aforementioned novel; the movie it inspired brought the death penalty into close, personal focus for millions of viewers around the world.

I expected Sister Prejean to be diminutive and frail, like the wizened elderly nuns who still teach at local Catholic colleges. Instead, the woman who walked onstage was a stocky, self-assured public speaker who exuded compassion and wisdom. She discarded her habit for an 80s-style blazer, complete with linebacker shoulder pads. From the moment she began to speak, she captivated the audience.

Her talk focused on her activities since Dead Man Walking; Sister Prejean has been present at the executions of several people now and has counseled countless others as they prepared to die. The entire time I listened, my heart pulsed a little faster: my experiences working with lifers made it easier to connect with her “controversial” argument that the death penalty is a form of torture. But she’s right – the entire prison industry perpetuates a culture of violence, sadism and dehumanization. As Sister Prejean said, it’s very easy for people to write off prison rights advocates with surface level arguments, e.g., “Nothing we do to them will ever be as bad as the crimes they committed.” But at a very fundamental level, taking life can never make amends for the original loss.

Many studies have shown that families are not comforted when their relatives’ killers die; rather, they spend years or decades waiting for the moment of closure that is supposed to come when the executioner flips the switch – and then it comes, and nothing changes. Executions do not bring about healing – instead, people usually feel empty inside and angry that they were told this would fix everything. The death penalty only continues the cycle of violence by leaving another family bereft of a loved one, by causing prison guards and execution teams to suffer horribly because of what they’ve witnessed, and by making it that much easier for those of us on the outside to view other people as less than human. Violence begets violence: state sanctioned violence is no different.

Please, believe me as someone who once supported the death penalty: once you’ve looked into the eyes of a man in prison for life and have talked with him over a period of months, you lose the ability to revoke his humanity. You realize that there is a fundamental part of your soul that cries out against the eye-for-an-eye maxim of our prison system.

In an old interview, Sister Prejean gave one of her reasons for opposing the death penalty:

“…There are some human rights that are so deep that we can't negotiate them away. I mean people do heinous, terrible things. But there are basic human rights I believe that every human being has. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations says it for me. And it says there are two basic rights that can't be negotiated that government doesn't give for good behavior and doesn't take away for bad behavior. And it's the right not to be tortured and not to be killed. Because the flip side of this is that then when you say OK we're gonna turn over -- they truly have done heinous things, so now we will turn over to the government now the right to take their life. It involves other people in doing essentially the same kind of act. In executions that have gone on here in Louisiana and one very recently I heard that the captain in the death house said to one of the people there as they were leaving, he said, leave this place and leave this to us idiots to do and there were tears running down his cheek because he was involved in the process of killing a fellow human being.”

She’ll also argue you under the table if you try to quote Scripture – and she has a point. Yes, the Bible sanctions death for murderers. It also orders us to kill adulterers, people who commit bestiality, people who insult their priests in the temple, etc, etc. The Bible, after all, was written millennia ago by a people with its own moral code, one which varied wildly from anything in existence today. And the whole “eye for an eye” quote actually begins, “And the whole “eye for an eye” quote actually begins, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist evil. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer them the other.” Just an interesting note there.

Anyway, this has gone on far too long, and I doubt anyone’s still reading. Regardless of what you might think about Prejean, her insight is worth hearing. She is one of the few leaders in this country willing to pull the veil away from the death penalty by forcing us to see it for what it is: the deliberate killing of someone else’s father, sister, cousin. We are far beyond the point where we should have held a reasoned discussion about why our enlightened society needs this archaic practice when there are other options available. Last night, I realized I need to help Sister Prejean and her supporters by pushing the issue with my own small circle of friends.

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