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Killing them softly

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The lead story in Sunday’s Tennessean (“Executions in the Shadows”) details how state officials are growing more secretive, and at the same time more urgent, about putting condemned criminals to death.

Polls over the last few years have shown a drop in the percentage of Americans that believe in the death penalty. Could it be that we’re becoming a kinder and gentler nation?

Or could it be that, as our economic fortunes plummet, we’re growing more…empathetic? Almost all death row inmates are indigent, and, as more and more of us, the upright and the blameless, inch inexorably toward the poverty line, we may begin to experience something akin to the condemned prisoner’s sense of helplessness and isolation.

Be that as it may, more than half of us still believe in capital punishment, either on utilitarian grounds (fry the rascal and be done with his upkeep) or on those of retribution. For some, the desire for revenge pervades their attitude toward those other perceived miscreants and lowlifes, the bankers and brokers and speculators and con men: there’s a score to be settled with those who have sinned against us.

Obama’s stimulus package, we darkly suspected, would benefit only those to whom the money always flows—the already rich—while we, like victims, wait for someone to notice us, or, like prisoners, live on the crumbs of hope and the crusts of despair.

“But the ungovernables, the ferocious, the conscienceless, the idiots, the self-centered myops and morons, what of them?” George Bernard Shaw asked in an essay written 60 years ago. “Do not punish them. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill them.

“To punish them is absurd: two blacks do not make a white; and punishment creates a class of punishers whose lives are wasted and their characters depraved so that as citizens they become almost as undesirable as the criminals they torture. “

If punishment is as demeaning to the punisher as it is to the one punished, then capital punishment is fatally degrading, and not just to those who carry it out but to all of us, among whom the awareness that we are ending a life should be shared, as Shaw said, “as part of (our) moral civic responsibility.”

But there are the moralists who will say, Thou shalt not kill—that deciding when to end a life is solely in God’s purview. Our insistence on finishing the job ourselves may arise out of discontent with the Almighty’s decisions, which can seem so arbitrary and unsatisfactory. What we want—what we long for--is fairness.

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