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Thursday, March 14, 1996

A Capital Idea

In his "Reflections on the Guillotine," Albert Camus provided the modern world its most preeminent argument against the idea that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime. An act of premeditated, administrative murder, the death penalty is carried out in cloaked isolation, by a society which really doesn't believe in the sanction's supposedly exemplary value.

What society does harbor behind the facade of intimidation, noted Camus, is revenge. While capital punishment has been abolished in Western Europe and virtually all developed democracies, executions in the U.S. resumed in 1977 after a decade of judicial review of the sanction's constitutionality. Polls show that 70 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for murder, and more than 2,000 persons are currently under sentence of death in this country.

Interestingly, the one chink in the otherwise seamless cogency of Camus' argument is the aspect of revenge; a predictable lapse perhaps for a writer who was foremost a novelist and thus a chronicler of human passion and unpredictability. There is no ambivalence in his treatment of that primal emotion, but a cursoriness and uneasiness to his approach.


There's much for us to chew on in Camus' discomfit. I share his departure from the truck of much liberal and progressive thinking which posits a Rousseau-like vision of human beings. The big question remains unanswered: How did essentially good and pristine men come to build bad institutions in the first place? For Camus, men are not social animals, but have need of society's laws for their physical survival. He places law's final justification in its reasonability and workability; in the good it does or fails to do in the society of a given place and time.

Reel forward through a highlight morsel of the past 40 years of victims and victimizers on the American criminal landscape: Kitty Genovese; the Three Charlies: Whitman, Starkweather and Manson; Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman; Fred Hampton; Juan Corona; John Wayne Gacy; Polly Klaas; assorted other serial and mass murderers; childkillers and pedophilic dismemberment specialists; twisty, television-fed drug-trade pogromists. An emergent electronic media pinioned viewers nightly with the latest carnage, politicians deftly utilized it, and the retaliatory inclination, in turn, assumed a peculiarly American fervor -- one whose possibilities invite consideration.

Imagine televising death penalty proponents assembled in a bar at half-time of Monday Night Football games, the way visiting teams' fans are often shown. TV monitors along the walls display, in split-screen, the barroom and the inside of a prison gas chamber. These people are a select group, publicly representing a nationwide audience, gathered to witness an execution -- carried out not by the state but by the family of a murder victim.

What has occasioned this situation is an idea that has been obscured by the larger debate over capital punishment, and one we are obliged to examine: The possibility that, perhaps, as a consequence of one of these grisly and heinous murders, the only way the family of a victim can ever regain psychological equilibrium is to see the perpetrator executed. And that the state, concurrently acknowledging that deterrence is a sham, would permanently turn over to next-of-kin the ability to salve their grief. Revenge reclaims, if you will, integrity by becoming personal.


Whether the condemned will in fact die is the decision of each family, and its alone; no one will know until the appointed moment. A determinate date of six months after imposition of sentencing should be established; time enough for the family to fully comprehend the nature of its ordeal and options, a process in many ways analogous to that of the counterpart with whom it is locked in symbiotic embrace.

The barroom witnesses should certainly include children, and they should be encouraged to ask questions of their parents about the proceedings. They will view the face of the condemned on one half of the monitor's screen, and view themselves on the screen's other half. The nationwide audience will be afforded a similar perspective, and the condemned will be able to see the crowd on a chamber monitor.

A country overwhelmingly disposed to retribution is thus enabled to view itself celebrating its solidarity for what it believes is a just and equivalent act. It watches itself instructing its children, in real time on Monday nights, on the efficacy of capital punishment. The aura of secrecy and darkness associated with the state-as-executioner is replaced by open national camaraderie and family values.

Would such an ongoing spectacle exacerbate our sadistic instincts or induce revulsion? Would an aggrieved family who might ultimately decline to deliver reprisal then suffer the displaced and instantly visible rage of a nation which expected its sense of justice to be honored? Or would we eventually come to glimpse ourselves as codependent participants in the equivalent of yet another afternoon talk show?

Clearly, here, we're afforded an opportunity to learn much about who we are, as distinct from who we believed we were. At the very least, transferring the privilege to execute from the domain of bureaucrats to the victim's family deprives the act of its abstract status. It is no longer merely something the state does in our name. It is ours, finally and truly, to deal with, and the debate and our character as a people can only be clarified as a consequence.

Copyright John Hutchison 1996
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