Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Civilization and Its Discontents

by Katherine Scardino

We talk so much at Women in Crime Ink about violent events in our world . . . and how wrong (regardless of which side of the table you are sitting on) our courts are about almost everything . . . and how our country is going to the dogs, etc. etc. . . . that I thought it might be nice to venture in another direction for a change. I don’t know . . . call it my "sensitive side."

Recently I was driving back to Houston from visiting my sister in deep East Texas. That’s the part of Texas where the country roads are "real" country roads—where the trees meet in the middle above your head, where buzzards are eating road kill in the middle of the road and you have to veer your car around them because they do not fly away even when a car drives by.

But I digress. As I was tooling down the road, I just happened to look beyond the first row of trees near the road. I noticed that behind what a driver would ordinarily see was . . . woods. I mean WOODS—like thick trees all growing tight as pick-up sticks without any cute paths or roadways in the middle.

So I started thinking (which is always dangerous), but have you ever just stopped and thought how far our country has come in a mere 150-plus years? There was no machine for cutting trees, paving roads, building houses; gads, there wasn’t even a television to watch CNN on, or "Days of our Lives."

One hundred and fifty years is not even a speck in the timeline of our planet. It is not much of a speck in the timeline of almost every other country, except the United States of America. We are so new and yet we have come so much further in our culture, education, inventions, music, and our laws, especially our laws. With all the advancements in other areas, have we really "advanced" in our legal system?

In our country's infancy all those years ago, we were a rough nation, especially in the area of crime and punishment. We were still having shootings in the middle of the road (you know, in front of the saloon, à la John Wayne), hangings off the old oak tree—and for crimes as awful as horse stealing. Maybe we were just simpler then. Our lives were not so complicated.

I wonder if we have evolved for the better or for the worse? Long before the mid-1800s, we punished people even more severely. I have a book that I frequently refer to: The History of Capital Punishment. It was written by John Laurence in 1960, and has a foreword by Clarence Darrow from Mr. Darrow’s book: Crime, Its Cause and Treatment. In 1922, Darrow wrote: "Frequent executions dull the sensibilities toward the taking of life. This makes it easier for men to kill and increases murders, which in turn increase murders, and so on, around the vicious circle."

So even then, this great lawyer understood that killing people because they kill people does not really get us anywhere. And in closing, Mr. Darrow said the following:

In the end, this question is simply one of the humane feelings against the brutal feelings. One who likes to see suffering, out of what he thinks is a righteous indignation, or any other, will hold fast to capital punishment. One who has sympathy, imagination, kindness and understanding, will hate it and detest it as he hates and detests death.
In my musings driving down the country road, looking at the woodsy backdrop and thinking of what life would have been like "back then," I wondered if we were really better now.

Sure we have all our "toys" and the great mysterious Internet—which in my mind is like the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. We all worship it as being the greatest thing—ever, but we don’t really know what IT is, right?

But it is part of our new world. Have we done the right thing by "evolving" to a form of capital punishment called lethal injection—instead of the hangings, firing squad, drawing and quartering?

Clarence Darrow seemed to think that by doing something on a regular basis, then it was not a big deal any more—just a regular thing. Is that what we are doing by executing people because they execute someone else?

Have we dulled our sensibilities to the point that it is no longer front page news that we have killed another person? I notice that executions are generally no longer on the front page—but have been relegated to the inside page of a lesser section of our local newspaper.

What is next? Who wants to see an execution on television? Wendy Lesser explored the societal implications in her book Pictures at an Execution. When the State executes, it does so on behalf of "The People." What's the next step in a world where "virtual reality" too often becomes reality? I think of the recently released movie Untraceable, where real-time online killings become a mania that users participate in by sheer number of hits, making us all "hit"men.

Do "The People" really wish to become a futuristic version of the lynch mob of our primitive years? How can that be considered progress? Anti-death penalty folks say "Nature loves life" and life should be protected and preserved.

Clarence Darrow, again, had a great thought: "The thing that keeps one from killing is the emotion they have against it; and the greater the sanctity that the State pays to life, the greater the feeling of sanctity the individual has for life."

Yet our State does not show us much "sanctity" for life. We do not show much sanctity for life. So where are we going with all this?


Jan said...

The biblical "eye for an eye" would be great if we, as God is, were infallible. Being that we are not, and mistakes are made, and innocent people do end up on death row for execution, then I don't know that the death penalty is just.

However, it galls me to have murderers; people who have savagely killed without compunction, get out of jail after being sentenced to LWOP.

That is where our justice system fails us, I think. If only we had a guarantee that the worst of the worst criminals would not be free to roam our streets to kill again and again; paroled after serving only portions of their sentences.

The courts and attorneys need to protect the rights of the victims just as fervently as they protect the rights of the accused.

katherine scardino said...

Jan: Thanks for your comment. One point I want to make - if a person is sentenced to Life without Parole (LWOP) that person does NOT get out of prison until he dies. Period. And, Texas just enacted that law.

Kathryn Casey said...

Thanks for taking us along for the ride, Katherine. Enjoyed it.

Actually, I have mixed feelings about the death penalty. For the most part, I'm not in favor. I was thrilled when our juries finally got LWOP. There are, however, certain cases, where I do believe it's warranted, so I'd hate to see it banned.

That said, I'd have a hard time serving as a juror on a death penalty case. Not sure I could do it.

Leah said...

I agree with you, Jan. I believe the DP should be the exception, not the rule and for the reasons you stated.

I just finished "Chasing Justice" by Kerry Max Cook. For all the people that bitch about how long it takes to be put to death after receiving the DP, read this book. This poor man was only a spitting distance from St. Peter before he was finally exhonerated! And justice still wasn't meted out in this whole deal.

katherine scardino said...

There will always be people who are "on the fence" about the death penalty, but Kerry Max Cook's story is frightening! Harris County (Houston) had about 25 years where every death penalty capital case resulted in a guilty verdict. Do you think it is reasonable to believe that every one of those people were actually guilty - not one innocent man in 25 years!