Interestingly, people feel more compassion for one person who is in a bad situation than they do for thousands or millions. Various experiments and tests have verified this odd fact that most of us seem to realize instinctively. When I am told of the hundreds of thousands dead in Darfur I feel awful but it's such a big number that I have trouble grasping it or bringing it home. Movies like Hotel Rwanda did a superb job of putting a face on those atrocities by bringing it down to just a few people and especially one. When I hear of one person who is threatened with death or is submitted to great suffering, a picture of that one person, or just my own imagined image of that person, stays in my mind, causing me to wake at night thinking or feeling for that person. Perhaps it has to do with empathy. It's impossible to feel empathy for six million but we can feel it for one.
Which is why, I suspect, that Sister Helen Prejean's latest book, Death of Innocents, really hits a nerve. I read her first, Dead Man Walking, after seeing the film, and I saw Sister Helen speak at Cal Poly, and she struck me as a great role model. Strong and compassionate and likeable. (Get these books at my shop.) In Dead Man Walking she addresses the moral question of the death penalty and deliberately focuses on the guilty. Her position is that all humans deserve basic human rights and dignity and executions take that away from the guilty. In Death of Innocents she addresses the many cases of innocent persons being put to death. The stories in this book are horrifying, all the more so because they are happening right now in this country. It is hard to believe it unless you come from the death-penalty southern states. Never having lived in a state that has little regard for the law or for the presumption of innocence, I can hardly imagine the situations these obviously innocent men found themselves in. Even with the best legal help - later, after conviction - they cannot stand against a state that cares more about wracking up deaths than in actually finding the guilty parties.
Even DNA evidence that should have exonerated these men did not get them off the hook. Even pleas from the pope! It makes me feel ashamed to be a United States citizen when I think of the prosecutors who put their own reputations above the search for the truth and the judges who let them abuse every relevant law to do so.
At the same time I feel a touch of pride because I am from the same country as Sister Prejean. We aren't all violent, and some of our best are among the best worldwide. And I think that, because she brings us the story of one person at a time, one person violently abused by the state, she may have our attention. We can understand that one, we can empathize. Now we need to do something.
Amnesty International and the ACLU have taken the greatest stands against the death penalty, although hardly the only. Amnesty's pages on the subject are richly informative. On the "take action" pages you will find letters to write and other actions to take, on the death penalty here and elsewhere in the world. I don't think it's a source of pride that we join only Japan among the primary industrialized nations in retaining the death penalty.