Facing Death

Most Texans avert their eyes from the state's machinery of death-but at what cost?


Robert Leleux

About a month ago, during a trip back home to Houston, a good friend told me something startling. She said that, barring some unforeseen event, a good friend of hers was going to be poisoned to death by the state of Texas.

Now, my good friend’s name is Sissy Farenthold, and her friend’s name was David Lee Powell, and David was a convicted criminal who was in fact poisoned to death on the evening of June 15, for the vicious, evil murder of a police officer named Ralph Ablanedo. I wanted to say that at the start, in order to emphasize that I do recognize that David Lee Powell’s crime was heinous. And yet I don’t believe he was a heinous man. I don’t believe the state had the right to kill him. I also doubt, very much, that any of this—the shooting of a police officer or the poisoning of a convicted murderer—would ever have registered as more than a passing blip on the radar screen of my mind if I hadn’t been personally affected, albeit in an extremely indirect manner, by this sorrowful series of events.

But because I was personally affected, because I was challenged by conversations I had with my friend—about David Powell and the death penalty, about the state’s right to kill American citizens, and about my own obliviousness to political issues that don’t directly affect me—I volunteered to write a series of posts for the Observer’s website.

During the two weeks I wrote these posts, which took the form of a daily countdown to David’s death, I found myself profoundly confronted by the experience, and particularly by the realization that I’d never really thought much about the death penalty before.

And here’s the thing, y’all. I actually lived in Huntsville for more than a year, when I was a teenager—and it was in many ways the happiest time of my life. I loved that town, and I loved the fine people in it. I was in a state of slaphappy bliss the whole time I was in Huntsville. All the while, I was practically living on the other side of a prison wall. I was living in a tiny town that, if you considered it independently, performs the seventh-highest number of executions per year—in the entire world. Huntsville, as the home of Texas’ death chamber, ranks right behind the whole rest of America, and other such exalted democracies as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and China.

Even though I know that it’s a wonderful, rare thing to be young and happy anywhere, it doesn’t put me on the shortlist for the Nobel Peace Prize that, during the whole year I lived in Huntsville, I never once stopped to think about the prisoners, and their families. Or the victims of those prisoners, and their families. Even on execution days, when protestors and spectators swarmed the town, it never really registered with me that somebody, a real person, was actually dying. Because I preferred to be carefree, which translates pretty closely into careless.

Now, we’re all Texans here, folks. And the death penalty is something we all live with. Like anything we live with long enough, we become more or less accustomed to it. I mean, hell’s bells, how could the average Texan not get used to it? It happens all the time. To quote a terrific article on the subject by Ned Walpin, the “astonishing frequency” with which Texas executes prisoners “has no parallel in the modern era.” Just since 1976, 460 people—including, now, David Lee Powell—have been executed inTexas. So far this year, 14 people already have been killed, and another five are scheduled to die by the end of the year. Even if you were committed to keeping track of them, how could you help feeling overwhelmed by so much pain and suffering and death?

Most of us, however, don’t have to worry about feeling overwhelmed, because let’s face it: We don’t want to think about it at all. We don’t want to think about vicious murders, and the people those murders destroy. Most of us are just trying to figure out how to keep gas in our cars and the telephone from getting cut off. The last thing we want to do is meditate on human suffering. Because if we did, then we might find ourselves relating to it personally—and the very idea of anybody intentionally hurting, much less killing, a person we love is unbearable.

This, of course, accounts for the tremendous comfort of “capital punishment.” This is why the death chamber—at least as a far-off, peripheral concept—possesses a kind of reassuring, talismanic power. And why supporting the death penalty can feel like a way to magically ward off the terrible danger of loss and pain that might befall us. It can be gratifying, even satisfying, to think that if some creepy stranger harmed a precious hair on the precious head of your child, then that creepy stranger would be made to suffer. The life of your child would be avenged. You’d get payback. Who among us can fail to understand such feelings?

And feelings are, after all, what we’re talking about here. Conversations about the death penalty tend to be highly charged and passionate, and they tend not to progress very far. People either “believe in” the death penalty, or they don’t. For instance, my wise, beloved mother does believe, very strongly, in the death penalty.  Mainly because she worships the ground I walk on, and, as she told me, “If someone murdered you, I’d want him to fry.”

Which, as a son, I have to admit is pretty hard to argue with.

But then I asked her, “What if I murdered somebody?”

And just like that, my mother said, “Then I wouldn’t believe in the death penalty anymore.”

Which again, from a strictly filial point of view, is absolutely the right answer. But it’s also an answer that points toward the hazards of relating to any political or legal issue from a purely emotional perspective. Because emotion is a notoriously unstable property, and life is often more complicated than a mother’s devotion. This, I’m afraid, is particularly true in regard to the death penalty.

Feeling avenged isn’t the same thing as receiving justice. For one thing, executing a murderer could never fully assuage the grief of a murder victim’s family. For another, we can’t live in a world in which turnabout is fair play. I mean, if some awful man pinches your behind in a crowded shopping mall, no judge is going to declare that that disgusting man’s behind ought to be pinched back. If some brute beats the tar out of you, no law in the land will sentence him to a good thrashing—no matter how much the jerk might have a good thrashing coming to him. And if you’re (God forbid) raped, no jury can decide to horribly violate your attacker.

There’s a very good, though emotionally unsatisfying, reason for all of this. It’s because we live in a wonderful democracy—and though we love our country, we do not trust our government. We don’t trust it to count our votes accurately, we don’t trust it to calculate our taxes honestly, and we surely don’t trust it to start picking and choosing American citizens to knock around.

Remember Michael P. Fay, the American teenager who was caned in Singapore back in 1994 for vandalism? Remember how the western world recoiled in horror at the thought of the government having the right to enforce corporal punishment against criminals? I mean, even those of us who privately thought that there were a whole bunch of teenagers who could really use a good caning, and privately thought, “Maybe he did deserve to be caned,” we can’t just let the government go around walloping people willy-nilly. We can’t let the folks who brought us the “hanging chad” decide whether or not to smack us, for goodness sake.

Aside from being a dangerous practice, it would also be uncivilized—just the sort of behavior that characterizes those “backward” nations we Americans prefer to believe we’ve left far behind, eating our Enlightenment-inspired dust. Countries like Saudi Arabia, for instance, where they’ll cut off your hands or feet as a punishment for stealing. (This, by the way, is what the Bible’s talking about when it mentions “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” a phrase people now use in the most hilariously metaphorical fashion; I’d like to see the reaction of your average, red-blooded Texan if the state literally started sentencing folks to some good Old Testament-inspired eye-pokin’ and tooth-pullin’.) We’ve all heard despicable stories from far-flung corners of the world, from Serbia to Somalia, about governments and tribal authorities that actually order women and girls to be raped.

Thank God, something like that could never happen in America, where the concept of bodily integrity is fundamental to our legal system and criminals face humane punishments, like going to prison or performing community service. In America, every citizen possesses a whole variety of constitutional protections, like freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, that guard us against state-sponsored violence. And those same constitutional protections even guard evil, loathsome, child-molesting criminals from being slapped around, or having their private parts cut off. Because we’re a great and cautious nation; we don’t believe that any government employee has the right to beat an American, no matter how rotten that American might be.

However—and here’s the really odd part, y’all—though it would be considered “cruel and unusual punishment” for the government to pull your hair, or stomp on your toe, or snap you with a wet towel, it is not “cruel and unusual” for the state to kill you. And I have to say, I find that a trifle peculiar. I actually think it’s pretty weird that government employees—you know, the same folks who can’t properly fund schools, or deliver your mail properly, and who treat you real nasty at the DMV—have the right to strap you down to a gurney, and forcibly inject you with a bunch of lethal chemicals.

Because somehow, executions are not considered, in the popular imagination, to be acts of violence that the state commits against its citizens. Which is, frankly, bizarre. Because I think that we can all agree that you can gussy-up killing somebody against their will as much as you want, but it’s still a pretty violent thing to do. Whether you “believe” in it or not, you must admit that killing a person’s a form of violence. But due to some strange cognitive gap in our reasoning, we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded by our government that an execution is a quasi-medical, quasi-bureaucratic procedure.

Texas’ “justice system,” which is busily killing off American citizens at an “astonishing frequency,” has become as bureaucratized as the DMV, and every bit as compassionate. This is, of course, another reason that most of us pay the death penalty so little mind—because it’s been so entirely normalized by the state. It’s also why worthy bureaucrats like Judge Sharon Keller feel perfectly justified in rejecting tardy paperwork regarding impending executions. Because on this issue, the clerk’s office of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals works much like the post office; it closes at five, whether the issue at hand is overnight mail or lethal injection. Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, wrote that the “administrative massacres” that took place under Hitler, were, in part, the end result of “the rule of Nobody, which is what the political form known as bureaucracy truly is.”

Not that I’m in any way comparing the genocide that took place under Hitler to Texas’ death penalty. That, of course, would be absurd and vulgar. But Huntsville’s enviably efficient death chamber, which is speedily poisoning American citizens at a rate that “has no parallel in the modern era,” is flourishing under “the rule of Nobody.” This is a rule that, to paraphrase Arendt, “make[s] … mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus … dehumanize[s] them.” It certainly dehumanizes those ill-paid state employees who staff the death chamber. It certainly dehumanizes those flocks of prisoners being swiftly poisoned within the death chamber. But it also dehumanizes us—we Texans who, most often, aren’t personally affected by the death penalty, and for whom these killings fly by, barely noted and little noticed.