What did Howard Zinn say about a moving train...?
This morning, after a two hour delay and an icy commute, I restarted my workday by opening an email from a friend in Maryland. It was an article from Saturday's Washington Post with the headline, "Maryland Lawmakers to Revisit Use of the Death Penalty," splayed across the page. At first I was curious, even a little bit excited to think that abolishing the death penalty was in the Post, but when I skimmed through the first lines I saw quickly that this was an article that came from the other side.
The first punches in this year's round of Maryland's fight over capital punishment have been thrown by Senator Mike Miller (D-Calvert), who over the years has been the strongest and most vocal proponent of state execution in either house. Now, Senator Miller is once again leading the charge toward executing people, promising to pursue action on regulations that currently ban the use of the state's lethal injection procedures. This may be nothing but political smoke and mirrors to sway public scrutiny from substantive arguments about repeal, and though the tactic may have some effect, it's time to make sure that we see through it to the core of truth about the death penalty: it should not be reinstated, it should not be expanded, it should be abolished.
Fortunately, in Maryland this is hardly a one-sided argument, and if anything there is far more momentum to repeal than to start killing people again. There was another article this morning on the Post's blog that centers around members of the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, which could vote on execution protocols soon. Not only are there hints that the committee could keep the death penalty on hold, but that repeal might instead be at hand.
Maybe I still have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on my mind. Maybe I'm still high from my experience in Chicago at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference. Or maybe I'm just tired of old, white men in suits making decisions about the lives of young, black, poor men. It doesn't matter, not really. No matter how I slice it, the death penalty is wrong, and should be striken from the books of any group of human beings.
The death penalty doesn't deter. In fact, Maryland's rate of homicides and other violent crimes is far higher than states that don't execute. The death penalty is bad for the economy; it costs 3 times as much as incarcerating a person for life (I'll take that one up down the road, I'm sure). The death penalty is bad for victims. When resources are drained by a state hell-bent on being right and drawing blood, it is victims who suffer more, dragged through the mud of a broken system at worst, and ignored at best.
But maybe even more than all of those practical things that tell us that the death penalty is bad for a society, the death penalty is a dark and despicable mark on our heart and soul as a people. It tells us something profound about ourselves that we're willing to add so much violence to the world as to cast away a person, brand him with his most awful moment--killer, rapist; not human being, no way--and finally sanction the very act that we claim to abhor. Dr. King warned us that we, the United States, including the citizens of the United States, are the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world." He called in that speech exactly one year before his death, for a "revolution of values" that it is impossible to say that we have acheived while we still kill people in such cold blood. And let's not forget that it's us that does the killing in those clean, bright rooms filled with doctors and masks and tubes and needles. To paraphrase another amazing leader, Vicki Schieber, if we claim to have values our whole life, but then when we are most tested our values vanish or change, then they were never our values at all.
Like the rest of us, I value safety, victims' rights, and healing. When we're tested by violence and by fear, let's make sure that those are really our values, and lets live in a way that makes those values real.
So if Maryland does reinstate the death penalty, as Senator Miller and others wishes, then when one of the 6 men on death row takes that final long walk, is strapped to the gurney and so sterily swabbed for the needle, and then injected with poison, I hope that I am aware. I hope that I remember that it's not Miller's decry that is executing this man, that it is not the Governor who failed to commute or the court system that failed to represent humanity or the executioner who presses the final button. No, I hope that I remember that it is me.
Now, while there's still time--and there's a very small window, at that--let's make sure that we don't have to make this choice again. Let's abolish the death penalty now.