13 December 2005

Tookie, Tookie

Call me an ostrich, but I don't watch TV, don't read the newspaper all that much. Until I hit Bloglines this morning for my daily reads, I thought "tookie" was a bird on George of the Jungle. ("tookie tookie!")

This morning, I see Tookie is a man's name. It's still his name, even though we killed him. We, us. You & I.

The Martian & I have had discussions about the death penalty. In his culture, in sweet, nonviolent Denmark, it's a totally unacceptable means of controlling crime. Over there, violent crime is a whisper. Maybe it is because Mother Denmark cares for her poor (her cradle-to-grave welfare system being another topic for another day). Or maybe it's because Denmark is small, insulated and has firm gun laws. Whatever the reason, Denmark (and much of the rest of Europe) thinks we Americans are uncivilized about the way we treat our worst criminals.

I don't like the death penalty, myself. Basically, I don't understand how a "Christian nation" (which we are, no matter how much we pretend not to be) not only accepts but actively legislates revenge as an instrumental part of society.

Tookie Williams did some very bad things. For one thing, he started a gang whose violence became the standard to which all gangs now aspire. He also may have killed people and laughed about it. A jury found him guilty of the killings; to the end, he maintained his innocence, and that really makes some people mad. How dare he second-guess the American justice system?

Only God and four dead people know the truth, and they're not talking. I'm a cynic so I'm happy to accept the jury verdict, but I have seen injustice, and I know that black men rarely get a fair shake. In this case, Williams' participation in creating gang violence -- regardless of his guilt or innocence in a specific killing -- was a sure-fire way to ensure that he would never get a fair shake.

And so he faced the real American justice system, which for all of our professed Christianity, metes out revenge. A good Christian has to believe a merciful God can forgive even the worst sins. But puny humans don't have the same capacity for forgiveness: A person who does a bad thing must pay some penalty, no?!

And even if we believe that God's forgiveness comes only after a sinner truly repents -- feeling the anguish of his victims as his penalty? -- we don't think that's enough. We want more. Prison time, so you can think about your awful crime and maybe change and redeem yourself (though we are cynical that you can change anyway).

For the worst cases, we are so outraged, so overwhelmed by a violent act, we have to believe a being who could commit such violence must be Other. And so, society justifies killing -- not one of its own, but something Other. It's not revenge, we say; it's just that society would be better off, we say, without this Other in its midst.

Surely, no intelligent person believes that the death penalty is a deterrent. Can you imagine the man torturing a rape victim and then deciding not to kill her because, "ooh I might get the death penalty"? No, he kills her because it's 'fun' or 'part of the gang initiation' or 'because then she can't testify against me' or some Other reason. We then kill him because his Otherness shows us that he cannot live in our Society and therefore should not.

America, through its 50 state legislatures and its Supreme Court, has made a list of what kinds of things convert a person from human to Other. I cynically note that when some other society's list is longer than (or simply different from) ours, we call them uncivilized.

A jury decided that Tookie Williams did something that was on California's list. While he waited for the American justice system to decide whether the jury was right and/or the list was fair, Williams did some thinking. "I may be innocent of those murders," he thought to himself, "but I did do a lot of Other things, including encouraging others to become Other. That's pretty sociopathic. Perhaps I can redeem myself to society by actively discouraging this Otherness I created."

So Williams began promoting an anti-gang, anti-violence message aimed at keeping kids from becoming Other. His works convinced many that he sincerely regretted his past Otherness enough to once again be One Of Us. Many more people, especially those in power, believed that he remained Other in his heart and dismissed the new, outwardly peaceful message as a sham.

I'm a cynic, and I have a hard time believing prison conversions. Until society can look into a person's heart to see Truth, it's too easy for a sociopathic liar to pretend he has 'changed.' And although I don't like the death penalty, I don't oppose it on principle; we have killed Others whose deaths -- I honestly believe -- made society a better place, just by removing the stench of their seething Evil.

That said, I don't think killing Tookie Williams made the world a better place. And it seems to me that's the only good reason society can give for intentionally killing a helpless man strapped to a gurney.


Jim said...

Good thing he's dead.

Judith HeartSong said...

very good post. I can alternately fight for either side of the argument..... for or against. I have strong feelings for and against, and I do not know what is "right".
The very scary thing is that over the years many have been falsely convicted. We could never begin to understand just how awful that would be unless it was we ourselves falsely imprisoned and on our way to death.

Terre d'Esprit said...

Amen, stranger friend. I couldn't have said it better.