SINCE 1759

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Sparkling civilization
By Penalty of “Justice”
36 Hours of Murder

“24” is a television drama featuring an American secret agent saving the world in 24-hour segments every season. “36” could be a docudrama following the same premise: 36 hours in the life of the death penalty around the globe. The script was written last week.

Wednesday evening, Clarence Hill was executed by lethal injection at Florida State Prison. Hill was convicted of killing a police officer during a bank robbery in 1982. On Thursday, in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, 10 “terrorists” were executed after their conviction by a vague Kurdish court, and a Jordanian military court sentenced a woman to death by hanging for attempting a suicide attack in a Jordanian hotel last November. The same day, a circuit judge here in Volusia County sentenced Troy Victorino and Jerone Hunter to death by lethal injection for brutalizing to death six young people in Deltona two years ago. Also on Thursday, a judge in Delaware and a North Dakota jury meted out two separate death sentences. Three Catholics were executed by firing squad in Indonesia for their role in murdering dozens of Muslims in sectarian clashes back in 2000. And in Iraq, that one day — Thursday — netted 77 bodies, most of them killed execution-style.

In all, 36 hours of premeditated madness. In every case, the killers, whether they are your run-of-the-mill terrorists in Iraqi cities or the “civilized” state governments of Florida, Delaware and North Dakota, consider their acts justified. The Sunni murdering a Shiite thinks he’s doing god’s cleansing work. The Kurdish court, on whatever evidence it has gathered about the 10 men it executed, thinks it’s sending a message to terrorists. The American juries sentencing murderers to die are doing what popularly enacted laws allow them to do in 36 states — and what 71 percent of Americans support. Imagine if the judge sentencing Victorino and Hunter had downgraded the sentence to life in prison (as a judge may). The Victorino case caught national attention, so radio and television shout shows would have erupted in condemnation of a justice system “soft on murderers.”

But adorning the state-sponsored killing of convicted murderers in the rhetoric of just punishment doesn’t make those killings less of a murder. State-sponsored murder is something more vile than pre-meditated: it is a mob lynching by supposedly orderly means designed to mask the repugnant nature of the proceedings — the phony rituals that precede an individual’s execution, the anti-septic appearance of a lethal injection gurney in a Zyklon B kind of death chamber, and that final touch of spectator-snuff, the witness room. To call any of this “civilized” is necessary to legitimize it all, like wrapping it up in the one-eyed logic of ancient retributions or religious edicts, or to note that even Thomas Jefferson had no issue with capital punishment. He had no issue with enslaving human beings (or using Sally Hemmings as his concubine), either: Greatness doesn’t preclude miscarriages in beliefs or actions. The question is: Are we willing to evolve for the better, or keep dressing up barbarism and call it justice?

Convicted murderers and terrorists are savages. No question. But they’re not punishment’s standard. By executing them in turn, society stoops to their savagery one final time. They have the last laugh. Still, to me that’s not the most convincing argument against capital punishment. Nor are the risks of executing the wrong man, the ridiculous costs and judicial delays bogging down capital cases, or even the small, distasteful membership of the Death Penalty Club of which the United States a part — China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Congo, and a few other judicially challenged nations. Each reason on its own is enough to end capital punishment.

But the most convincing argument is the one least considered, because it raises questions neither theologian nor philosopher nor journalist nor carpenter can answer better than a 6-year-old: We don’t know that capital punishment is a penalty. We don’t know that the hereafter isn’t pure bliss, even for a mass murderer, anymore than we know whether it’s reincarnation in the form of a larvae or an eternity of nothingness (although it seems clear that between an American Supermax prison and nothingness, the Supermax is the worst punishment). Capital punishment only presumes. If a jury had to find that the death penalty was, in fact, just punishment beyond all reasonable doubt to mete it out, not one jury could do so: It’s all doubt. Yet executions carry on, ignorance their most common denominator — whether it’s the fanatic putting a bullet in innocence’s temple or a jury of our peers delegating someone else to pull a switch on a murderer.

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