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People in other western countries tend to think of Americans as violent. We flaunt our guns, we go to war at the drop of a burka, and we are among the last holdouts in retaining the death penalty. State killings are murder: not just in my opinion, incidentally. When the death certificate is filled out for a state-ordered killing, the cause of death is listed as "homicide". Sure, they'll add "legal" but that doesn't change what it is.

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.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 30th, 2007 08:27 pm (UTC)
The Huge Picture
I think you have it right on Judith. We can 'relate' to one or even 50 people being victims, being abused, attacked and even killed. But we have no idea HOW to relate to 100,000 or 500,000 or even 1 million. We can try different methods, MM's how many MM's are 1000? What do they look like - I am not trying to trivialize, but to get a mental picture of 1000 or 'anything' let alone 1 million!

To see Hotel Rwanda, to visit Kosovo even to visit the WWI grave yards of Northern France and Belgium and see an endless sea of white crosses and tryign to visualize each one as a human life. To visit Aschwitz and try to 'see' the victims in terms of 'real - living people'. Our mind does not comprehend that. Perhaps it is a defense system our brain imposes as we could not really understand the true horror of what we see.

I hope and pray each day for the millions of children living in the streets and can only help one at a time. How can I help 1000 or 10,000. It is the same question. We can only do it ONE person at a time.
Apr. 30th, 2007 08:36 pm (UTC)
Re: The Huge Picture
Yes, and you have taken it upon yourself to help ONE and to do so in a big way. I congratulate you for that.

I think we feel helpless when we see the big numbers. And I agree that it is probably a kind of defense. If we could feel deeply for every one we would not be able to function. But we can help one, and then another, and that's a lot.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Judith Lautner
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