That all-American urge to punish

On Thursday afternoon I took the long drive down to the far southeastern corner of Virginia and took part in solemn observances to mark– and protest– our state’s killing of one of its citizens, Teresa Lewis.
It was a big and moving event. I was there not only as an individual but also in my capacity as a board member of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, so I spoke to a few media people in that capacity.
By far the most engaging person in the field outside Greensville ‘Correctional’ Center, where Teresa Lewis lost all hope of ever being further ‘corrected’ was Rev. Lynn Litchfield, who had been Teresa’s pastor for several years when Teresa was still in Fluvanna Woman’s Prison, near Charlottesville. Lynn had spent 2.5 hours with Teresa on Wednesday; and she spoke with great emotion and sincerity about how Teresa had, many times over the years, expressed remorse for the part she played (albeit only a small, facilitating part– no-one ever claimed she pulled the trigger) in the shooting murder of her husband and stepson back in 2003.
Lynn read out the portion of the scriptures that Teresa had asked her to read. (Phil.I, 12-28) Some 60 of us in the prayer circle sang and prayed together. And as Teresa was being killed we clanged a great heavy bell there in the darkening field.
I first became engaged in anti-death penalty activism shortly after my family and I moved into Virginia in 1997– coming from the District of Columbia, a jurisdiction that doesn’t have the death penalty (except the federal death penalty.) I was taken aback at the idea that by moving across the Potomac River into Virginia we were moving back into the Middle Ages… What with the death penalty and the still-standing laws that made sodomy into a felony…
A couple of years later, I was trying to weigh up how to divide my time and my concern between activism on death penalty issues here in my home state and on war-and-peace issues internationally. One of my Quaker friends helped clarify matters, saying quite simply that “It’s all the same urge, at home and abroad: It’s the urge to punish. It’s the stance that says ‘We are right, and we have the right to enact serious punishment on anyone we disagree with.'”
It’s also the point of view that holds that punishing, punishing, punishing all the time is somehow the “right” thing do– even when that punishing gets in the way of resolving conflicts or other problems.
It’s that self-righteous position that says that “we” are so right that we don’t even need to listen to anyone else… Not a Teresa Lewis… Not a Fidel Castro… Not an Ismail Haniyeh… Not the entire population of Gaza and the West Bank, which voted Haniyeh’s party into office in 2006… No, no-one else at all. Because, you see, “we” Americans are so inherently virtuous that we are always right; and anyone who challenges us is necessarily wrong, and should be punished.
Teresa Lewis, by her own account and that of the state, did one pretty bad thing at one point in her life. The state ignored her borderline mental retardation and determined that she had been “the mastermind” in the plot to kill her husband Julian Lewis, and that the two men who were the triggermen had somehow been only her pawns. They got life in prison– though one of them later bragged about how he had set her up, flirted with her, and preyed on her in order to pursue his tragic loser’s dream of somehow making it big as a respected and well-off “hit man.” He later killed himself in prison… The tragedies go on and on.
Meantime, we have still at large in our country, several people who have perpetrated acts very, very much more serious than Teresa Lewis’s. People who knowingly misled the public and jerked our government into launching a quite unjustified– and completely tragic– invasion of Iraq. People who instituted waterboarding and other forms of torture, disappearances, and international renditions… People who argued that in 2006 Israel should be “allowed” to continue its unjustified bombardment of Lebanon– for 33 whole days– or its equally unjustified bombardment of Gaza in 2008-09… And all those people have been allowed to walk away quite freely. They are in our midst at think tanks in Washington DC. They have the blood of so many innocents on their hands.
(This “urge to punish” is not, it turns out, omnidirectional in America. It very much depends on politics– and money. If you are poor and can’t afford a decent lawyer, you are 1,000 more times more likely to be on death row than if you’re a well-paid lobbyist, lawyer, banker– or Elliott Abrams.)
A state– any state– is a fallible, human institution. No state has the right to designate for killing off the battlefield (or even, I would argue, on it… but let’s stick to off-battlefield killings for now) any human person, whether at home or abroad.
At home, the idea that a economically disadvantaged, slightly simple-minded person like Teresa gets designated for killing is an outrage. Abroad, the idea that there are young American men sitting in military bases far from any battlefield, armed with killer drones and lists of names of people who are to be killed, is equally an outrage.
Who compiles those lists of names? Based on what evidence? No-one knows! It is truly an international Star Chamber, and it should be abhorrent to us all.
There are– in all these cases– good, solid alternatives to state killing. Alternatives that will be more effective in protecting the lives of innocents. At home and abroad– state killing must stop.

7 thoughts on “That all-American urge to punish

  1. Mick

    I thought the same thing.
    I had just read a WINEP piece basically calling for the US to support an Israeli war to take out Hizballah/Hamas/Syria and possibly Iran.
    http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC04.php?CID=334
    A continuation of failed policies that have killed thousands and achieved the opposite of what the idiot think tank ‘thinkers’ expected.
    They all get paid lots of money to keep spewing this harmful rhetoric.

  2. bevin

    “It’s all the same urge, at home and abroad: It’s the urge to punish. It’s the stance that says ‘We are right, and we have the right to enact serious punishment on anyone we disagree with.'”
    It’s worse than that. What the urge really adds up to is: “We have the power to enact serious punishment on anyone that we choose. And nobody can stop us.”

  3. Shirin

    On the subject of punishment and its effectiveness as well as more effective methods of bringing about behavioral change may I recommend, for starters, Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog“. It has implications that go far, far, far beyond animal training.

  4. Salah

    They have the blood of so many innocents on their hands.
    قتل امرئ فى غابة جريمة لا تغتفر وقتل شعب آمن مسألة فيها نظر

  5. Jack

    I agree with you completely, but you miss one other problem ; the “macho” issue. Anyone who opposes the death penalty (or bombing any country that doesn’t agree with the right wing US government position) is held up as a “wuss”, the ultimate put-down. As a long time lawyer, I watched the great influx of women into the profession professing to “feminize” it and make it more civil. Of course, just the opposite happened; in order to be accepted and eventually succeed, the women had to become even more “macho” and uncivil than the men.
    It is peer pressure from the loudest, most obnoxious louts that drives issues like war and death penalty. It is very hard for most of us to stand up against it, so the killing just goes on. Thank goodness there are people like you and your group who are willing to stand out there and ignore the ridicule and hatred flung your way. One can only hope it will inspire more of us to do the same and not just cop out because we feel it is all a useless exercise.

  6. Rachel Port

    My son has FAS, and so punishment really could not work with him. I had to think seriously about what kind of consequences would have some impact on him, in spite of his difficulty seeing the relationship of action to consequence. I also had to realize how terribly angry I sometimes got at him, and get past it.
    It is difficult to get beyond the reflexive impulse to inflict punishment, and to do the serious work of helping someone change. As for the death penalty, I have sometimes thought that life in a maximum security prison is cruel and unusual punishment, and that prisoners who request execution who are undoubtedly guilty should have that option. But generally the number of innocent death row inmates found by the Innocence Project, and especially with the likelihood that the Todd Willingham case will show that at least one innocent man has been executed, keep me fighting it.

  7. ali

    Surprise? The whole media erupted in outcry about Sakineh Mohammedi(that has not turned out the way the media is portraying)..but when a similar issue is in America,it hardly receives the attention!
    Double standards and media hypocrisy! Like no newspaper condemned the War in Iraq and now look what happened 1m Iraqis killed with the two B’S having blood on their hands……………High time the media behaved responsibly.

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