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The Monster at Rest

Dec
14
2005

Stanley Tookie Williams is dead. It is big news: if we accept Google News cites as a meaningful indicator, his death is more important than the Pope, more important than the Senate Democratic Leader, and more important than the supposed cinematic controversy of the moment. We care, and care deeply, about the killing of this man.

Support for the death penalty is the giant conceptual hole in modern conservatism, and I part ways with my fellow-travelers in being resolutely against it. If we consider the state competent to kill in peacetime, then surely it can administer Medicare Part D. If we believe the state competent to judge whether a man lives or dies in peacetime, then surely it can judge what’s best for our children. If we allow the state to decide whom it should kill in peacetime, then surely it can expand its role immensely in the provision and allotment of abortions. Executions by the state implicitly undercut everything that conservatism purports to advance; I am at a loss to explain it except as a surrender to the most base urges of man.

There is something about the mass urge to kill in the company of friends and neighbors that is ugly, primal, and enduring. Whether it is the Roman blood sport, the communal lynching, or the hideous spectacle of “ultimate fighting,” men have always seen fit to gather and gaze upon the death or suffering of their fellows. It is an impulse so pervasive as to be banal: not merely as in the stories of Shirley Jackson, but in what passes for children’s literature in the modern day. The latest mediocre cinematic installment of the mediocre Harry Potter series has as its centerpiece a blood sport tournament in which youthful participants — and even non-participants — are routinely killed or threatened with death. This central grotesquerie has gone entirely unremarked by the film’s reviewers and strident fans. It’s not that they are unaware of what happens: rather, they do not see it as something morally abhorrent or unusual. The collective acceptance of organized death-as-spectacle is that ingrained.

This is the rationale for the death penalty in the United States. It is not a deterrent; it is not a just punishment; it is not a pragmatic alternative to incarceration. It is a shoddy acquiescence to the same impulse that sent gladiators and hapless blacks to their deaths in bygone days. How, really, may an unseen green chamber deep within a California prison compares to the spectacle of the Colosseum, or a bonfire with a writhing Negro? In America, it must do. Unrelated observers, detached from any real sense of personal aggrievement at the crimes thus punished, are afforded the opportunity to clench their fists and set their jaws in righteous affirmation at justice done. Those with a real sense of aggrievement may do the same, or they may not: either way, they face their remaining days with the same profound loss that has afflicted them for so long.

Stanley Tookie Williams spent the flower of his youth as a hideous slaughtering beast, and there is no reason to take his much-touted redemption as anything but cheap charlatanism. He never acknowledged his certain guilt for those dead at his hands, and his enduring legacy on the streets of America’s cities is one of death and violence. Even in death, he is surrounded by the infantile hucksterism that he assembled about himself in his final years. From the predictable grandstanding of Jesse Jackson outside the San Quentin gates; to the inability of his friendly witnesses to conduct themselves with dignity and respect at his execution; to the farcical removal of his remains to South Africa under the aegis of a fellow convict, Williams ended his life as he chose to live it — loudly and without reference to the central fact of the horrors he visited upon so many. He dies a martyr in the eyes of those who mourn and admire him. These people are fools.

They have ample counterparts in the fools on the other side, more numerous if less luminous, who believe that his killing by the state represents some manner of justice. They are men who do not examine their endorsement of this killing overmuch. It does not bear examination. They are likely to be the same men who decry government inefficiency and denounce the activist state, except, of course, when it’s killing people. Then, presumably, big government comes into its own. If they believe in God, this killing usurps what is His, and worse, holds forth the possibility that the condemned may find mercy and repose in the Lord. If they do not, then the suffering and humiliation of the killer is ended in an existential snuffing. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, he might as well live. If reason ruled, he would.

This is not the realm of reason. Stanley Tookie Williams was never within it; and those who wished him dead followed in his bloody footsteps in their surrender to the urge to slaughter. The former, at least, lived as amoral outright. The latter, in their appeals to “justice,” do not. The moral quality of this is left to individual circumstance: hypocrisy is not the worst of evils, nor is it inherently an evil at all. It is enough to say that it is there, and the urges which produce it demand satiation as they have throughout history. What fortune there is an entire class bent upon providing it.

In his final throes, the condemned provided grist for the media mill assembled to chronicle the desserts of his bestial deeds. We read that he “struggled mightily against the straps holding down his shoulders, arms and chest to raise his head and stare, hard, at the press corps on the western wall of the witness room.” Going gently into the good night would be bad press. It was not the Tookie way. Nor is it the way of the base urge that made him a corpse, and removed him forever from the grasp of man’s justice.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 12:22 AM | Permalink

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