Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Suspended sentence for the Tuesday Top Five

Our Man in LA is switching it up a little bit, away from the Tuesday Top Five, to take a look at a major news item that you've all probably heard a little bit about.

If you haven't heard by now, California executed Stanley Tookie Williams early this morning up at San Quentin. Williams, who may or may not have helped to co-found the infamous Crips street gang, which began in Los Angeles and spread across the country and into other nations as a humongous organized crime network, stood convicted of four murders in the City of Angels back in the 70s.

Since his time in prison, Williams had, most folks believe, reformed. He'd written anti-gang books for kids, and he'd helped to lead anti-violence movements from behind bars. He'd been nominated on a number of occasions for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to keep other young people from the vicious track that he had once upon a time gone down.

California's Governor didn't believe he had reformed. Schwarzenegger pointed to the fact that Williams never admitted to his crimes, never expressed remorse for them. How reformed could he be, the Governor reasoned.

Now Our Man in LA is a bona fide liberal. End of story. But he believes in the rule of law in this country. Criminals should be punished for their crimes. And no, I don't believe Williams was innocent. I think he was guilty. There's not a single cell in my body that thinks he should ever - EVER - have been able to walk the streets again, even in spite of the apparently terrific work he did behind bars.

The problem isn't Williams. It's the death penalty. It's time that our country joined the 21st century and left this barbaric practice in the past, along with the Inquisition and all the other ugly bits of nonsense that must have seemed like good ideas as we made our way toward actual civilization.

The fact is, Schwarzenegger didn't have to let Williams out on the street. He could have given the man life in prison without chance of parole. It would have been fitting for a man who clearly led a particularly vicious lifestyle many years ago. Who knows what he might have done in the time he had left. Could there have been more books, more non-violence preached? Don't know.

None of us do. But Williams is dead now, another grave to match his four apparent victims.

In the investigation of crime, the first question most detectives ask is "Who Benefits?" Find the person who benefits from a theft or a murder, and more than likely you've found your assailant.

In the death of Williams, who benefits?

Clear answer. No one.

Let's take it a step further. In the execution of anyone for any crime, who benefits?

Same answer.

I've been singing this song for years, actually. And each time I hear the same argument. "But Chris, what if it was Steph who died? What if it was one of the people in the world dearest to you? Wouldn't you want that person dead?"

Sure I would. But it's not up to me. That's why we have laws. That's why in this country we allegedly believe in a system that protects the guilty as much as it protects the innocent. At the end of the day, could I imagine killing someone who had taken the things I love from me? Yes.

But those emotions exist in the vacuum of my senses. There's no context to them. They're just what I feel - in that moment. People don't deserve to die just because I think they do.

Does society have the right to take the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime? I don't think so. Others might disagree. But you have to be blind to think that the death penalty in this country is a) a deterrent to crime (since it seems like people are still out there committing murders); or b) equally distributed (how many more poor murderers go to the death house than rich ones; ask the same question for white v. black; ask the same question for different states - why are killers in Texas and Florida so much more worthy of death than those in Illinois or Wyoming?).

Another thing. Ask yourself this. Say someone does kill your loved one, and sure, you want that horrible creature dead. What difference does it really make to you or to the whole world if that bastard is dead or locked in a hole for the rest of his or her days on Earth? Either way, you get the same amount of time with the loved one you lost.

In the context of the Williams execution today, I read that Josep Borrell called for the end of capital punishment in all of the 76 nations on this Earth that still conduct this practice. Who's Josep Borrell, and who cares?

Well, Borrell's the president of the European Union. The countries of Europe - and all the rest of the western democracies on Earth - long ago gave up the death penalty. All the western democracies on Earth, save one.

That'd be us. Here we are, USA, with another black mark on a great country that seems to be accumulating its share of black marks recently.

When Americans think of the countries in the world that its people are most like, whom do we think of? I usually put Americans in the same boat as the British or Germans. We're not much different from the Australians or Canadians, either. Or the Japanese. Or even the French. A lot of similarities, I think.

However, if you look at the United States through the lens of capital punishment, you want to know what countries we compare to? Care to guess?

No? Well, too bad.

Here's the news. Through this lens, we're like China. Like Iran. Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. You figured that, right? No? There's a few others in our proud camp of countries that execute people EVERY YEAR. How about Egypt, Yemen, Singapore, and Kuwait.

Good company? You tell me.

Fact is, China, Iran, Vietnam, and the fifty nifty United States were responsible for 97 percent of all the executions in the world last year. We had almost twice the number that the Saudis did. Remember all that talk when Fahrenheit 9/11 came out about how brutal the Saudis were?

How about this for a box score:

USA 59, Saudi Arabia 33.

Do the math.

Decades ago, the groundbreaking cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote this famous phrase in his newspaper strip POGO: "I have seen the enemy, and he is us."

Today, in the wake of Williams' execution, I see that we have a long way to go as a nation before we reach our true ideals, before we self-actualize as a great nation of the new century.

In some states - like my former home base of Illinois - the death penalty has been suspended as its efficiency and efficacy is reviewed. According to polls, support for the death penalty in the US has shrunk from 80-some percent to 60-some percent in the last ten years.

So there's hope.

Still, today, and every day that we continue the practice of capital punishment, the enemy is indeed us.

I'll be back tomorrow with my top five and a whole bunch of fun stuff. Really I will. Today, though, this post today is about more than fun stuff. It's important stuff for us, and for the generations that follow.

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