I’ve had so many discussions over the past couple of weeks about David Powell, the man who is scheduled to be killed in Huntsville on June 15th. And so many conversations about the death penalty. Many of them with my mother, who is strongly in favor of the death penalty. Mainly, she said, because she loves me with all her heart, and would want anybody who murdered me to be executed.
Which, as a son, is pretty hard to argue with.
But then, I asked her, what if I murdered somebody?
“Then I wouldn’t believe in the death penalty anymore,” she said.
Which, again, from a strictly filial perspective, is the right answer.
But it also points to something that I’ve been mulling over about the death penalty–that there’s something talismanic about it. That there’s something about it that comforts people, because they love their children or parents or spouses so much, that the very thought of losing them is excruciating. And supporting the death penalty can feel like a way to magically ward off the terrible danger of loss and grief and pain. It can, I think, feel like the only threat serious and powerful enough to maybe, maybe keep your loved ones safe.
The threat of the death penalty can feel emotionally gratifying, to people like my beloved parents–desperate to protect their children–in a way that life imprisonment often doesn’t. And that’s why discussions of the death penalty become so highly charged, and emotional, and almost inevitably, contradictory and illogical.
Because when you’re dealing with terrible terrible grief, the “cold eye of logic” can seem very cruel. If someone you love has been killed, then of course, you want your loved one to be avenged. You want pay-back. You want to see those responsible suffer. Who among us can’t understand such emotions?
But feeling avenged isn’t the same thing as receiving justice. For one thing, executing a murderer could never really bring comfort to a grieving family. And for another, we can’t live in a world in which turn-about is fair play. And we all know that.
If someone robs you at gun-point, justice doesn’t mean robbing them back. If someone breaks into your home, no court in the world would allow you to break into theirs. If you’re brutally raped, no jury can decide to violate your attacker. Because spreading devastation around doesn’t prevent crime, or comfort the afflicted, it just spreads devastation.
David Powell, as a drugged-addicted youth, committed a horrible crime. He killed a police officer named Ralph Ablanedo–a husband and father of two children. I truly can’t imagine the sort of suffering his family has experienced.
But, to me, it doesn’t make any sense to keep spreading the devastation around. Because, where would you ever stop? What justice can there ever be for David Powell’s mother, Marjorie Powell, who woke up this morning knowing that her son had thirteen days left on this earth? What crime did she commit, and who will avenge her grief?
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been kicking around in my head for the last couple of weeks.