Stan ‘Tookie’ Williams is scheduled to be executed in California next month. Williams helped to found the well-known L.A. street gang, the Crips, in 1971. In 1981 he was convicted of murdering four people in two separate armed robberies, and sentenced to death row at San Quentin State Prison.
While in prison, Williams has written a number of children’s books focusing on the perils of gang life; he has written an acclaimed memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption; has been nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize for both Peace and Literature; and has, by some irony that, we may hope, will come to the attention of government officials next month, won a Presidential Call to Service award from George W. Bush in 2005 for his volunteer efforts to help wayward youth.
The prosecutor in Williams’ trial eliminated three potential African- American jurors, resulting in a nearly all-white jury. The California Supreme Court had twice censured the same prosecutor for discriminatory practices. During the trial, the same prosecutor made several racist comparisons of Williams to an ‘animal’ stalking in the ‘jungle’.
One can’t help but feel impotent, even ashamed, in offering casual reflections on the death penalty, when it truly is a life-and-death matter for others. At the same time, I am not prepared to lead an insurrection to spring Tookie Williams from his cell, and to simply recite the facts about his case doesn’t seem like much of a service. These facts would be largely borrowed from countless other sites where they are already easily accessible. So what’s left is ‘consciousness raising’: a mixture of facts, persuasion, and communicable outrage.
But let us begin with the requisite stab at difference-making. By all means, protest. Sign petitions. Help to nominate Williams, again, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Write to governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (email@example.com), or call him in Sacramento (916-445-4821), and implore him to grant clemency. If you get through, you may wish to comment on the injustice of a world in which a vapid body-builder has, largely by marrying up, been catapulted into a position in which he, with full force of law, is to decide whether another human being lives or dies. If you join the campaign to nominate Williams for the Nobel, you might point out that he is surely no less suitable a candidate than Kim Jong Il or Henry Kissinger. These men assuredly have blood on their hands, and have not done much of anything in the way of repentance. The same cannot be said of Stan Williams. (Among those who are permitted to make Peace Prize nominations are “University rectors; professors of social sciences, history, philosophy, law and theology; directors of peace research institutes and foreign policy institutes.” If you fall into one of these categories and are willing to co- sponsor the nomination, please send details to Phil Gasper, Professor of Philosophy, Notre Dame de Namur University, firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I have emphasized repeatedly in this space that the details of a particular death-penalty case should not matter so much in our opposition to it. Whether the person executed is mentally deficient or a genius, whether the crime was premeditated or an act of fleeting passion, whether the prisoner denies the crime or admits it, the death penalty is always and equally a perversion, a malignancy, and it by itself ensures that the United States will remain outside of the civilized world, behind Turkey, Turkmenistan, Cambodia, and Liberia, but in good company with China, North Korea, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Dostoyevsky said that you can tell what a nation is like by the way it treats its prisoners. If this is true, a nation whose government continues to engage in ritual human sacrifice, of victims culled largely from an underprivileged minority, is certainly as open to scrutiny as one that relies on Subarctic labor camps to maintain its iron-fisted grip on power.
I am often told that it is a cheap rhetorical ploy to bring up human sacrifice in connection with the death penalty. So allow me briefly to explain just how apposite this description is. The president’s annual pardoning of a turkey at Thanksgiving is covered in the media as a lighthearted bit of fluff. If there were not actual humans awaiting clemency, this is what it might well be. But in the current American context it is in fact a parody of the strange power vested in governors to decide the earthly fates of death-row prisoners, and it is also an implicit acknowledgement that the killing of these prisoners is a practice that bears real, non-jocular comparison to the ritual slaughter of birds for feasts. (I am not saying that this slaughter of birds is wrong –not here anyway–, but only that the parallel that the president’s ritual invites us to notice is revealing.)
To riff on Dostoyevsky, our treatment of animals is relevant not just to the well-being of the animals themselves, but to the moral health of a society in general. The range of possible ways of treating animals determines to a large extent our conception of our moral commitments vis-a-vis other humans. Bush’s pardoning of one turkey involves an implicit validation of the slaughtering of millions of other turkeys. And it also involves an implicit validation of the parallel system of pardoning the occasional death-row inmate among the vast majority who are not so lucky. Most disturbingly, the parody is an acknowledgment of the arbitrariness of the system of capital punishment.
This system has as its raison d’être not the simple despatching of unwanted human beings, but the ritual killing of them. This might explain the prima facie odd practice of keeping death-row prisoners on close suicide watch. Why bother if the plan is to execute them anyway? The answer seems to be that the aim of capital punishment is not to bring it about that death-row prisoners are dead, but to bring it about that they are, specifically, killed. In this respect, their deaths resemble the slaughtering of sacrificial animals more than the extermination of vermin. Nobody, after all, would object if an exterminator found a method of getting pigeons or raccoons or rats to commit suicide.
Of course, it matters very little for Williams whether the work of Schwarzenegger and his collaborators resembles that of an abatteur more than that of an exterminator. But this conceptual distinction may in the long run help the anti-death penalty movement to better frame its argument. We are not dealing with people who simply wish to bring it about that death-row prisoners are dead by whatever route. We are dealing with people who want to kill these prisoners, and who appear implicitly to believe that this is how the order of the cosmos is maintained.
Indeed, commitment to capital punishment is incomprehensible except as the expression of a folk belief about cosmic justice, about the need to cancel out violence with violence, etc. Those of us who oppose the death penalty are too ready to resort to utilitarian arguments about the impracticality of capital punishment, its failure to function as a deterrent, etc., as if these got anywhere near the heart of the matter. These arguments are valid and sound, but entirely irrelevant. For proponents of the death penalty understand the issue at an entirely different register. They inhabit an irrational world in which questions of the expected utility of a course of action can play no part, and it is time to stop trying to argue with them in terms they do not understand.
If I could, by some miracle, get through to Arnold Schwarzenegger, I would not appeal to his faculty of reason, but to his sense of shame. I do not know if he has either of these, but while I’ve seen positive evidence of the absence of the former, I am still waiting to discern some deep, buried germ of the latter. Deep down, he must know he is not in any position but a technically –and bizarrely– legal one to give the go-ahead for the execution of another man. None of us is God, though I can’t help but feel that a man whose entire career has been dedicated to self-promotion and the pursuit of power is in even less of a position than others to decide who lives and who dies. And when the man about whom this decision is made is Stan Williams, found guilty in a highly questionable trial, and in any case provably committed, unlike Schwarzenegger, to the well-being of others, the situation is all the more disheartening.
And I would take the so-called Christian right to task for its misuse of the label ‘Christian’. For the conception of justice that predominates among them is a distinctly pagan conception, and one for which viable alternatives have been available at least since the Gospels were written. Schwarzenegger, perhaps to his credit, is honest about the primacy of this-worldly glory among his concerns, and pays no more lip-service to the religious wing of his party than necessary.
But the institution of capital punishment relies on the masquerading of vast numbers of Hammurabic pagans as followers of Christ. To bring to their attention the shame of this masquerade is the best hope we have, at present, of putting this travesty behind us.
Justin Smith is a professor of philosophy and writer living in Montreal. He can be reached at: email@example.com