I walked with two other members of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in a silent protest against capital punishment. Just before the walk, we presented a letter to the office of Dallas County District Attorney, Craig Watkins, asking him to stop seeking death convictions. We ended the walk twelve and a half hours later in front of the office of Tarrant County District Attorney, Joe Shannon.
I’ll be honest — it was a grueling walk. It wasn’t easy. There were moments when I didn’t think I would make it.
But I fought through it, mostly because I didn’t want to be shamed by being unable to finish something which I had started.
I recall that, at one point during the walk, I wondered if I wasn’t wasting my time and a good pair of shoes. After all, this is not an issue that happens to be front and center of everyone’s mind right now. It’s not something which is trending in social media, or even on the radar of most folks. Besides, it’s a fairly common assumption that the death penalty is a given in Texas. Public opinion polls continue to show a majority of Texans support it.
Even with the slow erosion of support for the death penalty elsewhere around the country (last week, Washington took steps toward becoming the 19th state to abolish it), why is the death penalty a big deal now?
I come back to the same conclusion every time: acceptance of the death penalty is the first, and most basic, step toward acceptance of violence as a necessary and appropriate form of social interaction. Or in plain English: if you believe it’s ok to execute certain people, then it’s ok to kill anyone, as long as you have a good enough reason.
I remember being provoked by Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine. Say what you will of Moore’s politics, but the question with which he wrestled in that film is one that has yet to be answered. Moore is not anti-gun, as he made clear in the film, but he did want to know why there was so much gun violence in America. Why do so many Americans kill each other with guns, when other countries with even higher per capita gun ownership don’t? What makes the difference?
I believe that capital punishment has something to do with it. Those societies in which people agree that certain human beings, by virtue of what they have done, or what they might do in the future, must be killed, set a dangerous and destructive precedent.
They make violence an acceptable option. Perhaps a “last” option, but an option nonetheless.
Is it any wonder, then, that people who live in that kind of society also believe that violence is acceptable in certain situations? And that they end up carrying guns with them? And that people end up getting shot in movie theaters over things like texting during a preview? Or walking through a neighborhood with a bag of Skittles?
These societies, in the name of security and morality, put in motion a twisted logic — it is appropriate to kill in order to teach others not to kill, or, it is necessary to kill in order to prevent others from killing us.
This logic ends up replayed over and over in our cultural stories — in particular, in our TV shows and movies. Countless narratives have been resolved with the good guys killing the bad guys. It is the standard third act resolution. Walter White has to die at the end of Breaking Bad; Bruce Willis has to eliminate the baddies in the Die Hard movies; James Bond must kill the villain and blow up his headquarters. We accept the violence in a movie with the excuse that it is “just a movie,” but we rarely question the logic of the violence. We assume that killing the bad guy ALWAYS is the solution.
Thus, the death penalty makes sense to us. It feels like the way every movie should end.
But once we accept the death penalty, we find it easy to take the next step on the road toward normalizing violence. We discover that we can swallow the idea that we might have to go to war, and kill foreigners, as long as we can be persuaded that they want to kill us.
And it doesn’t take much beyond this, to be convinced that we might even need to launch a preemptive war, in order to keep someone from eventually attacking us, even though they have not done anything to us quite yet. We only need to be convinced that they are evil; that’s why George W. Bush had to keep using the term, “evildoers,” to refer to Middle Eastern men of uncertain allegiance.
Now we find ourselves in an era in which the President can decide to kill American citizens with drone missiles — without due process, conviction of a jury, or appeals. Suddenly, the death penalty can be enforced anytime and anywhere, at will.
I’m not suggesting that, if we abolish the death penalty, we will suddenly become people of peace, a nation which eschews violence.
But the first link in a long chain of “acceptable” violence will be broken. Perhaps the others will follow eventually.
It’s a long road ahead toward the justice which this world desperately needs, much longer than the journey I made on Friday.
Shortly after being arrested during a protest of immigration policy earlier this month, United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcano wrote a piece on the Huffington Post blog in which she said, “Principled leadership means following this journey towards justice all the way to the end.”
Yes, it’s a very long journey. But we need to follow it all the way to the end.