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Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2003 / 13 Shevat, 5763

James Lileks

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One of those head vs. heart things | Illinois Governor Ryan's decision to stay the headsman's axe isn't just the last spasm of a pol looking for some legacy points. He might be right. Sure, he waited until he was the lamest of ducks before discovering both courage and convictions. But maybe he's on to something. Maybe he's just reminded people it's possible to change your mind.

It's possible to be in favor of the death penalty, and still oppose it. One of those head vs. heart things. In your heart, you hear the details of a particular crime, and you're all for execution. You want the miscreant breaking rocks in the hot sun right up until the moment he's dragged off to the gallows. "The victims were churchgoing folk," the warden shouts through a bullhorn. "Use the extra-scratchy rope." And when he's dead, you want him brought back to life and executed again. Stuff his pants with meat and stake him out in the desert. Let the coyotes do the Creator's will.

Not a pretty emotion, but we've all felt this atavistic spasm when we read about some hideous crime. Electrocution, the rope, the last stand against the pockmarked wall - they satisfy the need for vengeance. They inflict fear on the murderer. His heart will batter against his ribcage and his brain will flood with disbelief and panic, and he will know what his victims knew. The hushed ritual of the gurney, with its tranquilizing drugs and the quick fatal prick, seems unsatisfyingly civilized and humane. It doesn't seem fair to put down a murderer with the same tools you'd use on your beloved old dog. For some, it's not that capital punishment is cruel and unusual - it's not cruel and unusual enough.

On the other hand: opponents say that life in the noisy hell of prison is worse than death. Perhaps. But when Gov. Ryan announced his decision, one suspects that a wail of dismay did not unfurl from death's row. We're NOT going to die? No! Say it isn't so! Get me my mouthpiece! I demand execution!

The alternative to execution is letting them rot. Put them in a bright tiled cell, chained to a bench. (On Christmas they undo the shackle for half an hour, and give the inmate a thimble of pureed turkey.) Many supporters of capital punishment might embrace the let-them-rot model if they actually, well, rotted. But no. If the murderer puts on a nice act in prison, gets a few mail-order degrees, pens thoughtful stories for the prison broadsheet, then come parole time there's a nice profile in the local paper. The con will usually have "neatly trimmed hair, now flecked with gray," and his glasses "give him an almost bookish demeanor." He will say nice thoughtful things about prison conditions and social injustice, and the story will conclude that this man who is writing a history of creamed corn in institutional cuisine seems far removed from the meth freak who shotgunned three teens in a convenience store.

As for the stories of those three teens, well, they don't have any stories. They're dead.

So capital punishment has its problems. Life in prison has its problems. Question: if you were unjustly accused and convicted, which set of problems would you prefer?

The perfect is often the enemy of the good - but if you're using the power of the state to execute people, perfection must be the goal. Some fine moral people believe capital punishment is a necessary tool, the only way society can deal with vile rats who've forfeited all claims to mercy. Others have their Ryan Moment: they wonder what they would do if their doubts grew loud and large, and they had the power to amplify the murmurs of their conscience.

Commutation is not a pardon. The convicted killers will die, alone, bereft, withered, unloved. Be patient. Let time grind them down and blow the dust away. No parole, no Pell Grants, no weight rooms, no TV. Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Forty years in a small box. Then a cold eternity in a smaller one. It's not perfect. But we can live with that.

JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


12/27/02: Whistleblowers?
01/06/02: The second year of this jangled millennium
11/16/01: Attack of the 'Patriotism police' and other Hollywood fare
11/12/01: From the bleats of dismay
10/30/01: Osama and the Genie
10/08/01: "We can stop the Bush Death Juggernaut"
11/04/01: America, loathe or it leave it
09/25/01: Do the Europeans actually think that the war on murderous zealotry will be furthered by undercutting America?
08/27/01: If the economy is in a funk, why aren't we dancing?
08/14/01: Dubyah's embarrassing presidential vacation
08/10/01: Hail to our co-chiefs?
08/03/01: Constitution: George the Uniter picked a doozy to unify detractors
07/25/01: The real reason why we need missile defense (What those uppity policy wonks won't tell you!)
06/18/01: Paining the egalitarian soul
06/01/01: One of the stranger indexes you'll ever hear about
05/21/01: One man's toke is another man's snort
05/08/01: Republicans want poisoned water
04/23/01: We bleat as we're sheared
04/10/01: Boys will be boys. And that's the problem
04/06/01: Pity the anti-American Left, they're gonna have a hard time on this one
03/26/01: You've been warned
03/16/01: The GOP's inexplicable desire to fold
02/23/01: Will the Jeb Bush administration attack Saddam in 2011?
02/09/01: In search of the the first ashtray thrown by a member of the First Family
02/06/01: Can you say 'Ayatollah Bush'?
01/24/01: The new Executive Orders
01/22/01: Hey, Dubya: Wanna save Ashcroft? Teach him to rap!
01/09/01: Bubba gets his last licks
01/05/01: The low-down on the coming recession (What those snooty economists won't tell you)
12/23/00: Memo to Dubya: Wanna show who is boss? Nuke 'em!
12/06/00: The Count of Carthage
At the Sore/Loserman Transition HQ
12/01/00: The Count of Carthage
11/28/00: Clinton knows history isn't written by the victors anymore
11/17/00: Chad's the word
11/08/00: The strangest political night
11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2003, James Lileks