As Thanksgiving quickly approaches, my mind is filled with thoughts of dinner preparations and anticipated conversations. I have been the Outreach Coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty for over two years. In that time, I have carved a clear identity with friends and family as someone who has an opinion about what we should do regarding the death penalty. I am the abolitionist at the table.
Even so, when faced with the prospect of conversations with friends and family who disagree with my position on the death penalty, I wrestle and turn in my seat trying to find a comfortable position to take at the dinner table. Finding the right words does not seem as important as finding peace within me to let this disagreement float between us. I have always expected to be changed by people I love and I expect to influence them as well. None of us should ever hope to come out of these real conversations the same…at least not if we are really listening and really alive.
So, it's important for me to leave room for others to express their feelings of revenge on the table of Thanksgiving dinner discussions. The need for revenge is real whether I feel it or not. How we continue to evolve with revenge is part of who we are as individuals and as a society. Revenge has existed in our cultures for thousands of years. Revenge is portrayed in art. It is written in literature. It is codified in religions. Susan Jacoby wrote an excellent history of revenge in Wild Justice, The Evolution of Revenge (1983). It is a good place to start when looking for common ground at holiday gatherings.
Over the past two years, I have met murder victim family members whose feelings of revenge have run the gamut from heartfelt abhorrence of revenge to an unremitting need for revenge. When we sit down at the dinner table with those we love and with whom we disagree, it is best to be sure that we know revenge is real and that we are all evolving together. Even though I do not have a desire for revenge, I cannot take away someone else's desire for revenge, nor do I want to take that feeling away from them. While I do understand that revenge is a real emotion, I do not believe it should be used as a basis of public policy. By replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, we can abandon a failed system and save money, while still leaving recognizing a painful need for revenge.
Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims
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Comment by Kathy, Jan 13th, 2010 5:01am
Thank you so much for writing that post. I'm a steadfast opponent of the death penalty and the most commonly arising question I am asked by others is "But how would you feel if it was your child who was raped, mutilated or murdered?", and I completely understand that reply - and tell them that that is not the point. There is a difference between the raw emotional response, the pain, the anger, and as you say, the desire for revenge that any normal human person would feel, and the wilful, cold-blooded, dehumanised taking of a life that executions represent. The idea of ANYONE killing anyone and forcing others to watch as they die is abhorrent. And of course only a part of the rich panoply of reasons why capital punishment should be abolished.
When discussing revenge, I am also tempted to raise the subject of the death penalty in other countries. Under Sharia Law, when a murder is committed in an Islamic nation, the victim's family are allowed to intercede and offer clemency in return for financial compensation (diyah). To me this concept is vile. 'Blood money' cannot compensate for grief. In effect what often happens is that the victim's family passes on the opportunity to save a person's life and/or sets an a unreasonable and greedy level of diyah. In one recent account, the mother of a young man killed in a stabbing actually kicked the stool away from under the feet of the alleged perpetrator being hanged. This is more than revenge, it is heinous by most western standards. I say this not to be anti-Islamic (I am not) but to add context to the whole idea of revenge. In a way, you can see how someone would lash out like this in the depths of despair to hurt the one who has hurt them. However, I would bet that the proportion of those who demand execution vs those who accept diyah diminishes rapidly the longer it becomes since the killing. In the USA, where safeguards against wrongful conviction can lead the execution to be delayed by years or decades, how can it be right to be exacting that revenge on behalf of another person, in a cold and calculated way? More, or less heinous?
And anyway, it is said that Life without parole, in its own way, is a punishment worse than death. But that's another story.
Comment by Jeff K., Nov 30th, 2009 2:21pm
To begin with, I am against the death penalty. For me, it is simply on religious and moral grounds: I do not believe that a justice system based upon reprisal is legitimate. I am increasingly disturbed, however, by the tactics used by many to oppose the death penalty on the basis that "innocent" folks are executed. Every time there is a high-profile execution, suddenly celebrities parrot talking points about how this fragment of evidence was missed or how this person was framed. The debate shifts more to whether or not folks like Stanley Williams, Kevin Cooper, or Mumia Abu-Jamal are guilty (having reviewed the evidence and numerous arguments in each case, I believe that each of the above is guilty) or not, and away from the central issue of the death penalty itself. Take Stanley Williams. The evidence - reviewed by a number of judges - is overwhelming that he was guilty of a brutal crime. In fact, he was a brutal man. He may or may not have changed in prison, but it is precisely because of his brutality that we, as a nation, must not execute him. Ultimately, we become like the criminals, and can fool ourselves into thinking we are taking care of crime. I appeal for an end to this never ending cycle of claiming that every person about to be executed is innocent. It simply is not true. How about we just stick to "the death penalty is wrong, regardless of guilt."