Vermont has no death penalty. Still, federal prosecutors are now demanding that Vermont hold a capital punishment trial in a recent murder case which involved crossing a state line. It seems important to the feds to teach liberal Vermont a lesson in American justice.
We find much support as we stand Wednesdays at noon against the death penalty. Yet there are still many passers-by who feel otherwise. “An eye for an eye,” they yell from their cars, or “They kill us-we kill them!”
While the rest of the western world has long put capital punishment behind it, the United States perversely bucks the trend. For years, Amnesty International has indicted the US for its killing of juveniles, killing the mentally ill, for the wide regional disparities in executions, for the arbitrariness of those selected for execution, the obvious role of race in those selections, the systematic exclusion of opponents of the death penalty from juries, the use of peremptory challenges to exclude blacks from sitting on capital trial juries, especially if the defendant is black, for the assignment of inexperienced, often incompetent counsel to indigent offenders, for a whole array of procedural bars to appeal, for the increasing unwillingness of federal courts to consider new constitutional questions, and for the very narrow view of the role of clemency taken by governors and pardon boards.
All these, says AI, puts the US outside the norms of international behavior.
Whence the still strong American embrace of the death penalty? I suggest it arises from two spurious needs, both of which have been normalized by a bizarre combination of collateral damage from our war-making and politically-correct “sensitivity”. The first is obvious; the second less-so.
One of the hallmarks of our contemporary culture is the curious competition for victim status. As we victimize others around the globe, it is most convenient to consider our American selves as victims. Whites are claiming victimization by affirmative action, males by feminism, Republicans by “the liberal media”, the rich by “big government” and so forth, a whole convenient upsidedownism whereby victimization is seen not only as a right, but as a claim on resources. The competition is fierce. Think for a moment about the demands of the Victim’s Rights Movement.
First of all, it is now unquestioned that murder victims are more than those killed, but are now legally seen as all friends and family affected by the crime, expanding the test of victimhood to the suffering of those left behind, whose emotional performances seem so persuasive to juries.
For the most part these people insist on vengeance as the only possible “closure” for their distress, a word that has been recently taught them by the political culture and its media-as if the effects of a murder are ever “closed”. Protecting the community via life without parole will not serve. Concerning sentencing, what the Victims’ Rights Movement has done is to substitute private for public justice, normalizing a sense of entitlement to the death penalty. Only a satisfying personal experience will do, and this now becomes the only adequate gesture for the rest of the community. The goal of the Victims’ Rights Movement is to repersonalize criminal justice so that the sentencer must declare an alliance with either the victim or the offender.
Criminal sentencing thus becomes a test of loyalty to one’s community a dangerous new path which predisposes toward the punishing needs of the emotionally involved. Rehabilitative strategies are overlooked, rejected as not sufficiently reparative to the new class of victims. And of course capital punishment is the ultimate assertion of righteous indignation, the ultimate form of public victim recognition. No less a legal figure than Janet Reno has raised victim status to absurd heights:
“I draw most of my strength from victims, for they represent America to me: people who will not be put down, people who will not be defeated, people who will rise again and stand again for what is right. You are my heroes and heroines. You are but little lower than the angels.”
Is victimhood, then, not a goal worth striving for?
The elevation of extended victims to sub-angelic status has two major consequences. First of all it normalizes and legitimates revenge in place of retribution, opening society to suffer an unending chain of reciprocal act of vengeance. We see this result playing out overtly in the Middle East, and covertly in the consciousness of people of color in this country, and around the world. By creating victims, we become the new victims, and victims are beatified.
The second result plays out in the political sphere: revenge killing by the state becomes part of a strategy of governance that makes us fearful and dependent on the illusion of state protection, that divides rather than unites, that promises simple solutions to complex problems. The number of men and women condemned to die grows each year, and we are treated to the spectacle of people running for public office on the basis of how many they are prepared to kill. Tough on crime, it’s called.
Caught up in the contemporary cultural preoccupation with identifying and paying homage to “real” victims, the idea that criminals can be victims too all but disappears, and deeper sociological, political and cultural issues are ignored as white hats simply execute black ones. Any mature engagement in responding to society’s most severe social problems is shouted down in victims’ claims for “closure”. Constitutional guarantees of equal treatment under the law are overlooked. Our fragile democracy seems to need strong symbols of public sovereignty, like expanding jails and capital punishment.
The desire for victim status, and a fearful aversion to non-government violence lead to a fearful embrace of others. Increasing fear and frustration mark the current American condition.
The victim charades represent a strategy of political legitimation. The centrality of crime to governing, especially in a democratic state, requires citizens who imagine themselves to be potential victims and those responsible for the care of such victims. Many ordinary citizens will be enlisted as authorizing agents and appreciative, applauding audience for America’s own brand of lethal violence, as criminals are demonized. To be for capital punishment is to be a defender of traditional morality against permissivism and of the rights of the innocent over the rights of the guilty. Down with protesters. Up with the fall from grace, with no prospect for redemption.
We are all victims in the land of the free and the home of the brave.