So, here’s what David Powell–the man the state of Texas will kill in Huntsville on June 15th–has me thinking about today.
I lived in Huntsville for a little over a year when I was a teenager, before I moved to New York City to go to college. And so did one of my very best friends–a witty, wonderful woman named Ello Black.
Now, a few years ago, Ello was at a fancy-pants party here in Manhattan, and some snooty Yankee lady asked her where she was from, and Ello proudly answered, “Huntsville, Texas.” And then this insufferable Yankee started going on and on, saying, “Oh, you mean that awful, barbaric place where they murder all those people? How could you bear to live in such a horrible, horrible place?”
And then Ello said something very brilliant. She said, “Well, you know, Yankee lady, in Huntsville, Texas, we don’t step over the bodies of homeless people when we walk down the street. Back in Huntsville, we wouldn’t let hundreds of desperate, sick people sleep outside in rags and cardboard on the coldest nights of the year.”
Snap. What can I say, folks? I have very eloquent friends. Now, I’m pretty sure that Ello and I don’t see eye to eye on the death penalty. But what I took from what she said was that we all, no matter where we live, insufferable Yankee or proud Texan, draw lines in the sands of our own compassion. We all prioritize the suffering of others.
Sometimes you choose to do it–because you just flat care more about the feelings of your sister than you do about her asshole, cheating husband. And sometimes you do it unconsciously–because you just can’t get through the day worrying about EVERYBODY’S feelings all the time.
But most of the time, I think being blind to the suffering of others involves a mixture of conscious and unconscious motivations.
Now, I can only speak from my personal experience. Like Ello said, I often walk down the street, and actually, literally turn my head away from the homeless people who live on my Manhattan street. And most of the time, when they ask me for money, I do not give it to them. Even when I have money to spare! Even when the loose change is jangling in my pockets! Even when the place I’m walking to is STARBUCK’S, where I plan on paying about $4.50 for a latte!
And I feel guilty about it, and I try very hard to push any thought of that homeless person right out of my mind, and sometimes I try to tell myself that I shouldn’t give them money anyway because they’ll only buy liquor or crack cocaine with it, and sometimes, I actually think (like a big, dumb donkey) about my grandmother telling me, when I was a little boy, “Jesus is watching you.” And then, I just want to slap myself for being such a sap.
Because if I really had to think about it, the real reasons I don’t give homeless people money is because they scare me, and they make me very uncomfortable, and I want to have a nice, happy day, and I don’t want to risk touching their dirty hands when I hand over the money.
And let’s face it, none of that will be winning me any Nobel Peace Prizes any time soon.
Because, here’s the thing, friends. I did promise myself to be a different kind of person. It’s not something I talk much about, because I’m such a total flop as a Christian, but I was baptized as an adult in the Episcopal church, and one of the stupid, stupid promises I made during that baptism that absolutely dogs me, was that I would “respect the dignity of every human being.”
Now, anybody that knows me probably just let out a big, fat guffaw, because trust me, I do not make it through a single hour of a single day without disrepecting the dignity of some human being. Often, in fact, I get a really big kick out of it. Sometimes, disrespecting the dignity of others is the best time I have all day long.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t wonder what the hell it might mean to ACTUALLY respect EVERYBODY all the time. For instance, does respecting the dignity of every human being really mean giving money to every homeless person who asks me for it? Do I really have to be nice to big, mean jerks just because they’re ALIVE?
I mean, let’s face it, that’s the real pain in the ass part of trying to be a Christian, isn’t it? Having to try and be morally conscious all the time, or even trying to figure out what it means to be morally conscious!
It makes me think back to that year I spent in Huntsville, which was in so many ways, the happiest time of my life. I was in a state of slap-happy, honeymooning bliss the whole time I was there, and I wouldn’t trade anything for it. I loved that town, and I loved the people in it. And all the while, I was practically living on the other side of a prison wall! I was actually living in a little town where they kill half of all the people who get executed in all Western democracies put together! In fact, if you just took Huntsville alone, it would rank, according to Amnesty International, in seventh place in the whole world in the number of executions. Right behind the rest of America, and other such exalted democracies as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and China.
And again, I have this horrible, “Jesus is watching you,” feeling about the fact that I was so young and happy and in love while I lived in Huntsville that I chose to push aside any thought of what living beside Huntsville prison meant.
Even though I know it’s a wonderful, rare thing to be young and happy and in love, it concerns me that I NEVER stopped to think about the folks on death row, and I never thought about the rest of the prisoners, or their families. I didn’t think about the victims of those prisoners, and I didn’t think about those victims’ families. People like David Powell, and people like Ralph Ablanedo, the man David murdered.
Because I preferred to be carefree, which translates pretty closely into careless.
But I have to tell you, having a friend who has a friend who will be poisoned to death by the state on June 15th is a very morally confronting thing.
It’s momentous, actually–and it should be, no matter how you feel about the death penalty. Because if we have a death penalty in order to drive home the point that life is precious, then we can’t just let these hundreds of executions that take place in Huntsville slide by. It does mean something–whether you’re for or against the death penalty–to create a class of people whose lives, and deaths, don’t matter.
We can’t allow ourselves to become inured to murders, or to executions–however we might define the difference between the two.
Because it doesn’t make any sense to let the killing of a person go quietly by, in order to show that killing a person is momentous. David Powell–who murdered a police officer, husband, and father of two children–has ten days to live on this earth before the state of Texas poisons him to death.
And I think that’s a real big deal, friends.
But then, what the hell do I know?
And here a clip from a movie about David:
And here’s a website devoted to David’s case:
And here’s a link to Amnesty International’s clemency campaign on