A Dark Corner of Hell

Photograph Source: Los Angeles Times – Public Domain

Thou shalt not kill. Right! That admonition is one of the few things that organized religion got right over the past few thousand years. Their spokespersons on Earth soon began to give that advice from above lots of shades of gray and began to make it okay to kill in wartime, but only under some circumstances that few remember, or care to remember today.

The religious right, the largest organized group of hypocrites in the U.S., makes murder by the state one of their principles. They love the unborn, but for most intents and purposes are ready to cast away the born once they see the light of day and cast off those who have gone astray in twisted ways, such as those who murder.

State murder is bad business and the hallmark of rightwing, authoritarian societies. It allows the state to premeditate the murder of its members, especially those who are poor, mentally ill, and castoffs who are of no practical use. Executions also make for a good show in a society trained to watch screens without any critical analysis.

There are heinous crimes and victims of crimes and heinous people. One such person sits in the Oval Office today. He’s responsible for the deaths of immigrant children at the U.S. border with Mexico, but I don’t hear any uproar of those moral leaders of the right calling for the full legal weight of the government to be brought against him. The law loves the foreseeable and it’s foreseeable that caging immigrants and especially immigrant children will lead to some kids dying.

His Justice Department, in the person of William Barr, is now going to put the machinery of death at the federal level into full swing (“US justice department resumes use of death penalty and schedules five executions,” Guardian, July 25, 2019) and murder five of those heinous actors who will serve as symbols of the government’s right to kill. They’ll throw in a white supremacist or two to prove that they, the federal government, are equal opportunity murderers. And their base will love the death chamber scenes with some inmates strapped to a gurney not very different from themselves in terms of social and economic class, except for mental illness in some cases and some very bad luck. But this so-called twist of justice will be served.

Revenge is the key emotion that Trump hopes to tap into with the resurrection of the death penalty at the federal level while the death penalty is losing adherents in states. Revenge is a very powerful human emotion, but soon exhausts itself, leaving the victims of heinous crimes revictimized and possibly more at risk for emotional turmoil.

There are those who have committed heinous crimes and need to be separated from society, but the death penalty goes much further than that separation.

Over 50 years ago, I taught at the junior high school level and had a class of eighth graders, one of whom liked to express his outrageous sentiments (about gruesome methods of execution) in class during a unit of study about the death penalty. I think that the student was trying to draw attention to himself, rather than taking part in intelligent discussions about the topic.

Looking back at his behavior in class, I think of today’s circus-like atmosphere of the application of the death penalty in places like Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. Now, the US will once again join this parade of the uncivilized and shove what remains of civil society into a dark corner of hell.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).