State Killing: Howling At The Moon

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Can you hear that? That’s me, howling. It’s not complicated why. Last night I started to write a blog post, in fact, this blog post. I had maybe 500 words typed into the box and then I moved the mouse and the next thing I knew, poof, there was nada, zilch, nothing. All gone. Totally vaporized. That’s when I started howling. I continue even now.

The blog post, well, this blog post is/was about state killing. There have been two horrendous, macabre executions in the last weeks. Let me briefly recall them for you before I move on to what I think might be my point.

First, Virginia killed Therese Lewis. Lewis, you will recall, has an IQ of 72. She didn’t pull the trigger in the double murder for which she was executed. The two men who were triggermen got life. They, as far as I can tell, were not developmentally disabled. Therese Lewis’s crack trial lawyers had her plead guilty to a capital murder (the DA never committed to taking the death penalty off the table). Then, believing that a judge would give her life and not order her to be killed (again I don’t know why they thought that), they gave up her right to a jury on the punishment phase. And guess what? The judge decided that even though she had an IQ of 72 (it’s not clear that the judge knew this) she should die by lethal injection. Governor McDonnell, harking back to Bill Clinton’s execution of Ricky Lee Rexford 18 years ago, denied her clemency. Virginia killed her. This, I said, wasn’t justice. If it was, the law is an ass.

Then, Georgia killed Brandon Rhode. Talk about setting new levels of macabre. Rhode decided to kill himself, using a razor, on the eve of his scheduled lethal injection. He cut his throat and his arms. He almost killed himself, but alas, Georgia would have none of that. Only the state, in Georgia’s view, could kill him. So they sewed him up, and restrained him, and added security, and then, last night, they killed him. Let’s review. Rhode had no regard for the lives of the three victims, two of whom were children. He had no regard for his own life, which he tried to take. And Georgia had no regard for his life, and by killing him our names, they reduced us to his level, the level of people who don’t think life is important.

These two executions right next to each other raise all of the usual reasons why state killing is barbaric. And should be abolished. There’s nothing new in them. Not really. The state kills its most marginalized members out of proportion to their population numbers: the poor, people of color, immigrants, the developmentally disabled (who can test to higher than 70 IQ), the mentally ill, GLBT people. The state claims that the killings deter other killings. The statistics don’t bear this out. But that means that the state thinks that somebody with an IQ of 72 is able to figure out whether what she’s doing amounts to capital murder. Or doesn’t. And, of course, there’s the age old revenge reason for killing killers. An eye for an eye might make the whole world blind, but the logic of that doesn’t eclipse the state’s determination to kill.

No, there’s nothing new. But I’ve been haunted by two ideas this week that for some reason hadn’t occurred to me before. First, maybe we should be conceptualizing state killing as if it were a vestige of pre-Colombian human sacrifice. It’s a lot like what Montezuma, for example, did. You capture people, you confine them, you feed them and take care of them. And then, after time goes by, when the need arises to pacify the gods, to make supplication for rain, or a crop, or prosperity, or fertility, you take the appropriate number of prisoners, and you ritually kill them.

The Aztecs had temples and furniture and plates and altars designed for this killing. Cortez was horrified when he arrived and saw the racks of skulls. Now we don’t have anything quite as grizzly. Now we do it with medical trappings: a gurney, an injection, the person tied down to the table. It’s all very neat and quite bloodless. But it’s still killing. And it has a late 20th century sterility to it. Maybe state killing should be seen as a last vestige of human sacrifice.

Don’t like that idea? Don’t want to be associated with that kind of barbarism? That kind of lack of regard for the value of human life? Don’t want own the savagery of state killing?

Then there’s the other idea that’s bothering me. The Thirteenth Amendment ended chattel slavery in the United States, except as punishment for a crime. The Constitution has the very 18th Century conception in it that convicts are the slaves of the state. Now remember that when this lingo was written down, there was in fact slavery in the US. The people who wrote this understood precisely what was involved in slavery. And when slaves rebelled, or refused to do what their owners demanded, what happened to them? They were imprisoned and beaten. Were they also killed? Of course. Is being killed by the slave holder for something you did a “badge of slavery”? So is it possible then to see state killing as the transfer of the power of life and death from private slaveholders (who could no longer hold slaves) to the state, the only ones permitted in the US to hold slaves? And is this revenge killing, now with lethal injections, just a continuation of slavery? Yes, I know. It’s all dressed up now, with medical instruments, and special rooms, and nice courthouses with walnut paneling, and judges wearing robes. But in essence, how close is it to the continuation of the prerogatives of the slave holder?

What’s the difference between state killing and lynching? The difference, if it is one, is that state killing is supposedly based on a fair trial. Lynching doesn’t have any process other than violence. If a person’s trial is grotesquely inadequate and she is convicted of capital murder and executed, the distinction between lynching and state killing is illusory. Put another way, what are the real differences in Georgia’s killing Brandon Rhode and Georgia’s lynching Leo Frank?

I remain mortified by state killing. This week has been a pinnacle of ugliness. The only saving grace is that California’s moratorium continued this week because of a judicial ruling. And because they ran out of a chemical they need to kill. They won’t have the chemical again in sufficient quantity for about 18 months.  So they won’t be able to kill anybody for a while, no matter how much they want to, or think the old gods require it.


cross posted from The Dream Antilles, dailyKos, and The Stars Hollow Gazette  

6 comments

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    • davidseth on September 30, 2010 at 2:39 am
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    End the death penalty.

    Thanks for reading

    • Edger on September 30, 2010 at 3:20 am

    a week or so ago in a thread about Teresa Lewis’ execution. It was revealing in a way, because the only justification for the death penalty any of the proponents could muster was that they wanted her to die. Completely emotional and revenge and/or ego based justifications with absolutely no reason or logic even attempted.

    The clearest any of them could be was to say things like she should die because she ordered the murders.

    In their minds people who kill should killed. Period.

    Good thing they have us to say no to it. They’d have a serious problem if we agreed with them…. not that they comprehended that when I said it to them.

  1. However, Cortez and the Spaniards are not good sources in describing Aztec killing. In fact, the self serving exaggeration is a total historical travesty. These killings did take place, but they probably were not nearly extensive as the bloodthirsty Spaniards described, and it most likely was not a feature of their civilization that had endured very long. I would speculate it was a manifestation of local wars and other demographic stresses, and it somehow became ritualized. In that respect I agree with your analogy.

    It has always been strange for me trying to reconcile the splendor and beauty of Tenochitlan with some of the strange religious behaviour, but is pales in comparison to the bloodthirsty brutality of the Anglo-Iberian civilization. I know this isn’t very relevant to your post,

    but I kind of have a natural tendency to defend indigenous Americans against descriptions of their lives that were written 100% by other people who made sport out of killing them.

    Anyhow, I do agree with your views concerning capital punishmnent up to 99.99%——My problem, as I’ve mentioned before, has to do with intentional killings of a member or members of a racial or ethnic group for no reason. I gotta run, thanks for the essay——–

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