Death Be Not Proud

"There will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed." -- Albert Camus, "Reflections on the Guillotine"

I will not mourn the killers of James Byrd as they face await lethal injection in Texas.

I will not weep for Jesse Timmendequas, killer of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, as he sits on New Jersey's death row or for the men who leveled the Albert P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City with a bomb made out of fertilizer, killing 168 men, women and children.

I will not mourn their passing, their lives having diminished us as a society by giving voice to and lending action to violence and hate. I will not mourn them because they will not be missed.

But I do mourn for us, for our society, for our willingness to sanctify revenge, to participate in and sanction the violence and hatred, to add blood to the rivers of already flowing blood.

The numbers tell the tale: 576 executions since 1976, with a record 76 people put to death this year. That is 576 men and women who have been erased from existence by a state intent on punishment and revenge, by a political establishment that has sold the American public on the notion that revenge is acceptable and that capital punishment will make their streets safer.

The deterrent argument is false. The white-supremacists who beat, stripped and chained James Byrd to the back of a truck and dragged him down a Texas road to his death were apparently unconcerned with the possibility that they themselves could face death. The death penalty offered no deterrent, offered no protection for James Byrd.

The pedophile Jesse Timmendequas, was driven by a sickness that turned him into a predator, leading him to commit his vile acts again and again, regardless of the consequences. That he would face the death penalty if caught did not appear to have mattered.

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the men convicted in the Oklahoma City bombing, saw themselves at the forefront of a new American Revolution in which they would wrest control of the U.S. Constitution from a corrupt American political regime. Within that context, they appeared to understand that their death would them heroes, leave them martyrs to their cause.

Admittedly, these cases may not be representative. But statistics tend to back up the argument that the death penalty offers no deterrent effect:

(ogonek) The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the South repeatedly has the highest murder rate, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 1997, the South was the only region with a murder rate above the national rate, though the South accounts for 80 percent of executions. The Northeast, which has less than 1 percent of all executions in the U.S., has the lowest murder rate, according to the DPIC.

(ogonek) The majority of death penalty states show murder rates higher than non-death penalty states, according to the DPIC. The average murder rate per 100,000 population in 1997 among death penalty states was 6.6, while the average murder rate among non-death penalty states was only 3.5.

(ogonek) A survey of police chiefs showed that two-thirds do not believe that the death penalty reduces the number of homicides and they ranked it last among crime reduction methods.

(ogonek) Executions may increase the number of murders, rather than deter murders, according to the DPIC.

The call for retribution, the notion that the ultimate crime -- the taking of a life -- should be met with the ultimate punishment - the taking of the murderer's life, is more difficult to dismiss.

I cannot honestly say that if I lost someone in Oklahoma City, or if I were in the Kanka's position, I could resist the call for blood. I cannot say that if a brutal crime were committed against my family, I would not be calling for an equally brutal punishment to meted out.

But retribution, especially when carried out by the state, exacts a price on the people who claim it, making us complicit in the crimes, staining our hands with blood. That is because our role as human beings is to protect and preserve life and not to end it.

Morally, there is little difference between a state-sanctioned killing and a Mafia or gang hit made to right some wrong committed against the organization.

When the state pulls the switch, it does so in the belief that it is protecting its citizenry, that it is removing a dangerous element from the streets and that it is sending a signal to others who might consider committing a similar crime.

When organized crime acts, it has the same interests at heart, only it does not have the weight of the government behind it.

State-sanctioned murder is still murder. I could no sooner ask my government to take a life as take one myself.

No matter the crime.

Hank Kalet is a journalist living in South Brunswick, N.J.

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