Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Value of Human Life

I'm listening to Democracy Now's coverage of the vigil outside the Georgia prison where Troy Anthony Davis, accused of killing a police officer in 1989, is scheduled to be executed. It's now over an hour past the time when Davis was supposed to be killed, but apparently the execution has been delayed.

There is strong evidence indicating that Davis was wrongly convicted: several witnesses have recanted their testimony, and several jurors at his trial have said that they would decide differently now. Even if this turns out to be wrong, there seems good reason for another trial. It's remarkable how many Republican law-enforcement people agree, including William Sessions, FBI Director under Ronald Reagan. Going by reports during DN's coverage tonight, there is hope for a stay of execution tonight. That possibility could be disproved before I finish posting this, so I'll update it if necessary.

(One of Davis's sisters just told Amy Goodman that the delay in the execution shows that "God is still in control." I hate to be cynical in a situation like this, and I know that people will say the most embarrassing things under stress, but: Girl, please. If God were in control, the whole mess would never have gone this far.)

But listening to this broadcast reminded me of another execution ten years ago, which I wrote about for the student newspaper. The execution of Timothy McVeigh, for the 1995 Oklahoma City terror bombing that killed 168 people, took place in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001. I got only negative responses to this column, and from people whose disagreement surprised me a little. None of them could explain why they disagreed, and ten years later I still think I made a good argument here. Unlike Davis, there was no real doubt of McVeigh's guilt, but I believe that makes this piece just as relevant now.
Now that Timothy McVeigh has been executed, it's moot whether the death penalty should be applied in his case. I was struck, though, by one local columnist's comment that "McVeigh was not a good poster child for people opposed to the death penalty. ... If anyone deserved to die, that was the guy."

This comment misses the point of opposition to capital punishment. I suppose the best "poster child" would be an innocent person, someone falsely convicted of a capital crime; it takes very little soul-searching to agree that such a person should not be executed.

Next would be someone properly convicted but repentant, who can appeal to Christian values of forgiveness and personal renewal. But, as that writer's remarks suggest, it's quite possible to be moved by such people while still holding that there are people who deserve to die.

Someone who really opposes the death penalty will oppose it even to dispose of a remorseless criminal like McVeigh. In that sense, McVeigh is an ideal "poster child" -- not because he's appealing, but because he isn't.

The core question is this: what can justify killing anyone? Tim McVeigh believed that while the deaths of 168 men, women and children in Oklahoma City were regrettable, they were also necessary. This is not, unfortunately, as unusual a belief as I wish it were. It echoes -- deliberately, I suspect -- the infamous claim of a military spokesman in Vietnam that it was necessary to destroy a village in order to save it.

McVeigh was a military man, a Gulf War veteran, indoctrinated in a system which treats human lives as tokens to be used up in the pursuit of military and political goals. The U.S. killed far more than 168 civilians in the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, in World War II and in any number of smaller actions around the world. More than 168 civilians were killed in Panama during George Bush\'s invasion of Panama in 1989, even by official U.S. estimates; human rights groups claim a death toll in the thousands. Of course, these deaths were regrettable, but we are assured they were necessary, not only by our government but by ordinary citizens who support its actions.

But again, who gets to decide this? American troops under orders have killed unarmed American civilians on American soil numerous times since the Civil War. The Bonus Army of 1932 (two World War I veterans and one baby), Kent State (four students) and Jackson State (two students) Universities in 1970 are among the more famous. These deaths too were regrettable but necessary, and since they were official killings no one was executed for carrying them out.

McVeigh, by contrast, decided on his own which lives were expendable, without orders from above. If he had exploded his bomb in Iraq, or in Waco, Texas, as part of an official military or paramilitary action, his life would not have been forfeited.

How many people are needed to validate the taking of human life? One lone bomber, apparently, is not enough. Two? Three? A dozen jurors? The President, the Cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff? The 535 members of Congress? At what point, and for what reason, does taking a life, or 168 lives, or 168,000, stop being a crime and become regrettable but necessary in the eyes of most citizens?

Please understand that I'm NOT saying that McVeigh didn't commit a terrible crime. I'm saying that bringing him to justice is only a beginning. If Americans really believe that McVeigh deserved to die for his crime, we should also bring to trial other American criminals whose hands are far bloodier than McVeigh's: the men who gave the orders which killed millions in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. If the lives of mere foreigners don't count, these men's victims included thousands of Americans as well -- 55,000 in Vietnam, for instance. Will supporters of the death penalty call for the execution of (among others) Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Oliver North and Bill Clinton?
I was being sarcastic when I wrote that it takes "very little soul-searching to agree that such a person [who is innocent of any crime] should not be executed." Quite a few people refuse to consider the possibility that a guilty verdict could be mistaken, especially when it could provide an execution.

After Timothy McVeigh was executed, a local newspaper printed a photograph of one of the celebrants outside the prison: a fat white man wearing a wedding dress, dancing with joy at McVeigh's death. I'd bet that he, like others who celebrate outside executions in the US, considered himself a Christian, a question I'm not competent to judge. But it reminded me of something Walter Kaufmann wrote in Without Guilt and Justice (Wyden) in 1973:
In Paul W. Tappan's massive standard text on Crime, Justice and Correction, for example, all ten references to Freud (in seven hundred fifty pages) concern the light he shed on criminals. But Freud ... also turned a searchlight on respectable society, illuminating the unedifying motives that come to the fore in punishment. Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal [49].
P.S. 11 p.m.: The Supreme Court has unanimously denied a stay of execution, and according to Democracy Now! the execution of Troy Davis is proceeding tonight, and (P.P.S.) Davis died at 11:08 p.m.