Editor's Note: This article was written Monday evening, hours before the state-sanctioned murder of Tookie Williams.
The barbarism of "an eye for an eye" revenge has been revealed time and time again, in many cases around the United States. Debates have taken place about the efficacy of rehabilitation of prisoners, about the relative "clemency" regarding life in prison without parole, and whether or not there are actually crimes that mandate the death penalty. I imagine, if you are like me, you may have even thought about the death penalty whenever you've heard of a particularly heinous crime, especially one involving sexual crimes and murder of children.
While we reflexively assume that the death penalty flows from an Old Testament, punishing, patriarchal god, tit-for-tat killing in response to murder pre-dates the Bible by millennia. In fact, we could trace many (if not all) of the current religious, racial, and national conflicts to a deadly marriage between this desire for revenge and political and economic compulsions. Take a look at the cascading revenge that America has sought in the aftermath of 9/11: Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Ghraib and scapegoating people who are (or look like they are) of Middle Eastern origin, We can even take this down to the micro-level and speculate what goes on within military platoons when one of "their own" is killed. Yes, at this time of history (post-Enlightenment), revenge killing has to come dressed in the moral garb of justice (at best), or a "they hit us first" rationale (at least).
In the face of all the massive and intricate debates over capital punishment the question remains over the tenacious nature, the intransigence, of coming around to see that this kind of barbarism as antiquated. Why is there such an appeal to the power of revenge killing?
If psychologist Otto Rank and Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker (for his book, The Denial Of Death) are correct (and I think they are), what we are trying to kill with executions like the one we are visiting on Tookie Williams is death itself.
Humankind is neither filled with instinctual evil nor halo-wearing saints. We are however very fearful. Our greatest fear is the fear of death. After all, we are the only species (that we know of) that knows its own impending finitude. Our first tribal ancestors saw the primary way of defeating death was to band in groups and use the power of the tribe as a collective offset of death and an insurance policy for immortality. All spiritual traditions and religions are human attempts to negotiate the non-negotiable: death. Anytime one member of the group was killed (either internally or by external enemies), the collective power to defeat death was blunted; the only way to balance the scales was to take the life of the killer.
Despite the many religious and political forms human society and culture has taken over these thousands of years, the bottom-line is that our fear of death and our quest for some kind of immortality (after-life or heroic demise) has underscored all of our efforts to live on this planet. Revenge killing is that deeply embedded.
Pleas to be rational, to be humane, cannot fundamentally alter this irrational quest for immortality and denial of death. The desire for making a life meaningful in the face of our guaranteed demise is that strong, and anything that disrupts that quest and reminds us of our mortality has to be met with an "eye for an eye."
Other ways must be found for us to accept death and to live each day with a real grasp and understanding that our lives on this planet are rented moments only. It is way past time for us to admit that death is both unpredictable and beyond our control, the vicarious distancing of death by killing another notwithstanding.
At 12:01 a.m (PST), Tookie Williams' life will become another vengeance-inspired sacrifice in our efforts to appease (and ward off however temporarily) Death. When we awake tomorrow, knowing that he died and we did not, will we feel better?
T. Patrick Donovan is a doctoral student in Depth Psychology and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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