The Death Penalty, Honor and Dignity

“You killed! Killing is wrong. You’ve got to pay. You’ve got to die!”

Getting even is what it’s about – call it vengeance, vindictiveness, retribution, or any “pretty” name you want. Refute all the other “reasons” suggested by death penalty advocates, and the emotional core remains: “Killers must pay with their lives.”

Who will “pay?”

The poor will pay. The death penalty is classist!

Blacks will pay. The death penalty is racist!

Those who thought a while ago that racism was no longer an issue for activists, simply never knew the enculturated and intransigent nature of the beast. The institutionalized power of racism which we experience in the latter part of this century motivates a conviction that the future of anti-racism will require more of us than we have given in the past. More will surely be required to eliminate from the land the blatant form racism takes in the death penalty.

Since 1976, about 44% of those executed in the U.S. have been either Black or Latino. History teaches that this disproportionate application of the death penalty will continue.

It is clear that the death penalty is meted out much more frequently to those whose victims were white: since 1976, about 85% of those who were executed were convicted of killing whites, while about 15% were convicted of killing people of color. Clearly the system values white lives more than others.

The death penalty is one of racism’s more blatant forms of injustice and immorality. Recently my own motivation to eliminate the death penalty has been enriched by an argument which personalizes the issue in the light of my own sense of honor and dignity.

At a regional conference hosted by the Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty two years ago, I heard Henry Schwarzchild of the ACLU, long known as a death penalty abolitionist, share a thought which has become for me a motivating factor in the struggle. He recited briefly his movement through the many arguments which leave the death penalty indefensible as a matter of public policy. Putting all those arguments aside, Schwarzchild had come to one position which is now his chief motivation to continue working for the abolition of the death penalty.

The source of the motivation comes from some words of Hamlet, in an exchange with Polonius. Knowing that Hamlet’s uncle, the present king, has killed Hamlet’s father, the two have just contracted with some actors to perform the play by which Hamlet plans to “catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet has talked with the players and, satisfied that they will do the job well, tells Polonius to make final arrangements with them. Polonius responds: “My lord, I will use them according to their desert.” Now look carefully at Hamlet’s immediate reply:

“God’s bodkins, man, much better, use every man after his desert, and who should ‘save whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty…”

Henry Schwarzchild said, and I join his thought: I do not want to live in a land where people are treated out of anything save a sense of honor and dignity.

I do not want a land where people are sent to the death penalty because they cannot afford the costs of an adequate legal defense.

I do not want a land where people are sentenced to death in a pattern which clearly shows black lives are held in lesser value than white lives.

I do not want a land where any penalty is invoked in the arbitrary and capricious manner of the death penalty, more like a lottery than a system of justice.

I do not want a land where far too often innocent people are convicted and sent to death in a final, irrevocable act.

I do want a land where people are treated always with a sense of honor and dignity, where I, and the state in my name, treat every single person out of a sense of honor and dignity.

If your desire is anything like mine, you will be active to keep your state from adding its name to the list of the 37 which now adopt the absurd position that to keep people from killing we must kill.

Those of us who live in Massachusetts are in a position to send a positive signal out across the land, indicating that we will not allow our Commonwealth to kill again.

We will not allow the state to increase racism and classism by killing poor white and black people.

In Massachusetts there is an increasingly strong coalition of more than 40 anti-death penalty organizations and some 6,000 people, led by the Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty. Stay in touch with them, get active with them, and help keep the death penalty out of Massachusetts. That will be a cause of celebration for the whole national movement.

Let’s not treat people, even when guilty of crime, out of a sense of what some think they deserve; let’s treat them out of our sense of honor and dignity. That sense of honor and dignity ought never to include killing; never can it countenance the racism and classism implicit in the application of the death penalty.

This struggle will take time, energy, money. It is a struggle for our sense of honor and dignity as a people.