Toad in the Hole

December 16, 2005

Tookie, For the record

Since I'm persuaded that the comment string shouldn't go on longer at Chris', I'll say it here.

I don't really give a shit about the late Tookie Williams personally. "Nobel Prize nominee" means zilch, as anyone who's read up on the Nobel nomination process knows. Children's books about the horribleness of prison life might or might not actually persuade anyone, ever, from a life of crime. I have no faith in the particular court process that got him sentenced, and therefore refuse to say it's factual that "he killed a man and laughed about it" or anything else about that, but I have no doubt he was a thug, and strongly suppose he was responsible for lives lost and other lives being made more miserable that they would have been. My contempt for the culture he exemplified is (so far) boundless.

I don't even particularly believe in "redemption." Some things are so bad that all the do-gooding in the world won't make up for them -- which, by the way, doesn't mean that doing good is not good, whenever and by whomever it gets done.

But the latest state execution was, like those preceding it, a very bad thing, because state executions are bad things period, and because state executions the way the US does them are the terminus of a process so screwed up that I loathe the idea of my own life being at its mercy, and though I know the odds are slim, I see it as so flawed that I am at some non-negligible risk -- because it is really that screwed up, not because I'm going to murder anybody. Or at least get caught.

And of course I loathe equally the idea that anyone else's life should be so risked, too.

Capital punishment on the whole is useless. Places where it's practiced don't exactly benefit from greatly reduced crime rates compared to other places. It doesn't save lives, or money, or time, or societal morale, or family values, or the tears of the Baby Jesus. We're not any safer today than we were Monday, and society (whatever that is) isn't in any way cleansed or improved or made more minty-fresh. For all I know, the air quality might be worse from all the goddamned candlelight vigils.

Maybe somebody somewhere feels better, but that's not quite enough, is it?

I'm also a bit impatient with the idea that Williams was an inhuman monster. I'm not saying anything nice about him in that sentence. "Monster" is a word that's been completely vitiated -- hey, it's not like the old days when there were real monsters; gimme that old-time Gojira -- and it might be instructive to go back to its original connotation: "It just goes to show ya..."

Sorry, folks: he was human. Hitler was human; Stalin was human; Pol Pot was human; that guy down the block who kicks puppies is human. It's not a virtue. It's not something you or I earned. It's not a distinction; there are billions of us and we're all over the place. We can be disgusted to be members of the same species but it's a fact nonetheless: every shithead is our brother. Yeah, or sister. Can't escape it, can't namecall ourselves into a better club, can't blame the devil or the Martians or the other animals.

There's a big unacknowledged danger in calling anybody "inhuman," and I don't mean the obvious one, of allowing ourselves to treat the "inhuman" badly. No, the worse danger is that we'll feel that whatever evil things these "inhuman" humans did are somehow beyond human behavior, that as humans we're therefore safe from ever doing anything that bad ourselves. Unless we look long and hard at our own behavior, at what we do with whatever power we have, there's no reason to think we're incapable of doing things just as evil.

Posted at December 16, 2005 04:46 AM


dear ron -- thanks. i very much agree with your view that all of us are human. the points about the fallibility of the system are excellent.

thought you might like to see this article, if you haven't already:

Posted by: kathy a at December 17, 2005 02:23 AM

Thank you for that, Kathy. Very interesting article. The stat that people who kill African Americans are less likely to be put to death for it has been floating around for awhile, but Kroll drew the circle explicitly and well in that piece -- that it's not just the "identity" of the criminal, but the "identity" of the victims that counts.

Even when you get past the idea that some people are disposable, like the prostitutes that Jack the Ripper killed (and we have more recent instances of that , certainly), there's a certain "well, they're just killing each other" feeling that drives that differential sentencing. It's rather hard to get that one out of one's subconscious, and it gets fed by the way people close ranks to protect their own -- which, I emphasize, is not a failing. It's a prefectly normal coping tactic, when nobody else will protect us.

Both closing ranks and not caring about criminals who prey on people we perceive as "their own" are cut from the same stone as the declaration that someone is "inhuman." It's also part of a normal psychological defense, as reasonable as averting one's eyes from any horror, but it's a reflex we can't allow to rule our actions or words. Not just because it leads us to injustice ourselves, but because the way it's articulated is factually untrue.

Posted by: Ron at December 18, 2005 06:12 PM