(in which I write my first, and last, death penalty post)
There are minutes and hours, days and weeks and sometimes whole months, when I am deeply opposed to the death penalty, when what I like to think of as my enlightened, civilized self steps coolly away from rage and impulse and passion, turns his back on what is sadistic and savage and easy, and stands firm for what is right and just and moral. Times when I believe that killing is killing, that two wrongs do not make a right, and that, though an eye for an eye may not make the whole world blind, neither does it help the world to see or live more clearly. Times when, deep in my heart and even deeper in my soul, I know that mercy is better than revenge, that gratification is not the same as vindication, and that compassion in the face of cruelty is just about the most noble, graceful gesture we God-fearing humans can muster.
But then there are minutes and hours when I think about Adam Walsh or Polly Klaas or Carlie Brucia or Jamie Bolin, or days and weeks like this one, when I think about Stephen Mayhle and Eric Kelly and Paul Sciullo, shot down and left to die by a young man with a room full of munitions and a soul full of nothing, or the months when all these awful thoughts and real-life horror stories metastisize into my raging, rabid self, when I am greatly, grimly committed to the death penalty. Times when I believe that killers deserve to be killed, that evil, grand or banal or any in between, should be met and punished in its own, awful kind, and that, if a tooth for a tooth is good enough for the Old Testament, then it's good enough for me. Times when I’m sure that revenge feels better than mercy, that turning the other cheek is no substitute for kicking the other ass, and that sympathy and leniency are no substitutes for the sweet satisfaction of sure retribution.
And then there are those awful, disconcerting minutes and hours and days and weeks and months' worth of times when I'm leaving Ethan at school or waiting for Adam to come home from a friend’s house or expecting a call from Wendy that does not come precisely when it should, when I am alone with my wandering thoughts and my sudden, aching loneliness, and I wonder how enlightened I would be, how savage or civilized or homicidally psychotic I would be if some lunatic at a shopping mall, some sick handyman in my neighborhood, some quiet loner with a racist web site and a Zionist conspiracy theory next door decided that one of my loved ones would make a nice snack, an easy mark, a precious little plaything for his own perverse fantasies. Times when, if I can get past the searing pains in my chest and the screaming horrors in my head, I imagine what it would be like to know that fear, to feel that terror, to live and breathe and suffer forever with the knowledge of what had happened to them, and how, without ever knowing or understanding why.
One thing is always certain: that no matter what I said or tried or wanted to believe, that no matter what I felt in my heart or knew in my soul, I would want to find and beat and choke and violate and mutilate the guy who’d done it. I’d want to dismember, disembowel, decapitate, and desecrate his putrid, reeking flesh with my bare and hungry hands, and, if I did not or could not get to him first, I’d want to see him shot, stabbed, hanged, burned, fried, flambéd, fricasseed, drawn-and-quartered, gas-chambered, and lethally injected by any local, state, or federal authority willing to do it for me. I’d want that monster to die a long, slow, excruciating death, and I’d want to savor every last second of it. Even as it sickened me. Even as I knew it was wrong. And even, no matter how pleasantly sadistic and cathartic it felt at the time, as it haunted me for the rest of my life.
This is why, for a long time now and for ever more, I can not take — in part because I can not feel and thus can not know — a firm position on the death penalty. It is an issue I am content to sit out, because even here on the sidelines, it sickens me. I'm appalled to see politicians and activists and actors, people who have not once seen nor sat with nor even spoken to the families of the victims, parade themselves across tv talk shows and hold prayer vigils outside prisons in support of some piece of human detritus about to be executed for mercilessly killing someone's mother or father, someone's son or daughter or husband or wife. But then, the next day, I'm discomfited, and almost as disgusted, to hear the distant, detached new reports, to read the cold, clinical details of how a peaceable government that prohibits both murder and vigilante justice could so methodically and unapologetically commit them.
Don't we want to mete out cold, hard, in-kind justice to someone who took an innocent life? Of course we do. And we should. But once we've done and become no better than the killer we've punished, how do we live with ourselves?