America's new drug of choice: revenge

Capital punishment is vengeance masquerading as justice. No matter how heinous the crime, we lose our moral highground when we allow killing as a punishment for murder.

The United States seems increasingly obsessed with vengeance at every level of society. Unable or unwilling to try to fathom the complexities of our times, we find solace in revenge. It is our narcotic. And it dulls public thinking by excusing us from having to address the moral and political complications we choose not to deal with.

I spent much of last summer in New England, arguing over dinners with friends as to whether Steven Hayes, a habitual criminal convicted of torturing and savagely murdering a Connecticut mother and her two daughters, deserved to be executed.

A jury decided he did.

My friends, along with the jury, believed the case so heinous that the perpetrator deserved to die. But isn’t every murder heinous?

A shameful history

The issue, then, is not whether Mr. Hayes and his yet-to-be-tried alleged accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky, merited the death penalty. Hayes clearly wants to die. He smiled when he heard the verdict. His attorney called the sentence “suicide by the state.” The issue is the death penalty itself.

The indisputable fact remains that as long as the death penalty is available to judges and juries, we will execute people to satisfy people’s lust for revenge, and often mistakenly. As a nation we have a shameful history of executing innocents, from Salem’s alleged witches, to cattle rustlers, to “uppity blacks” and alleged murderers who we later discovered had incompetent defense attorneys. The only way a civilized people can prevent execution of the innocent is to outlaw the death penalty as an option.

Until only recently, when the Supreme Court forbade it, American courts were even executing the mentally retarded and juveniles, employing the Connecticut rationale that the crime was too heinous.

As a reporter, whenever I interviewed a murder victim’s surviving parents or spouse, it was clear they passionately wanted an eye for an eye.

A Connecticut friend, an educated physician, said she wanted Hayes and his partner to die. When I exclaimed, “That’s revenge!” my doctor friend said, “That’s right!”

A vengeful society

There is no question as to the grievous injustice a victim’s family suffers. And there is no question as to the moral wrong of murder and base criminality. But awful crimes can also be committed when vengeance masquerades as justice. And revenge has become our drug of choice.

In 2003, in Nineveh Province in Iraq, an officer in the 101st Airborne pointed to one of his men and in a hushed tone said, that soldier “wants to be here because he lost family in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.” I was led to understand that this soldier eagerly killed more than a few Iraqis to avenge the death of kin, despite the fact Iraqis had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. It would seem Iraqis are Muslims, and that seemed to slake his need for vengeance.

But American politics, too, is riddled with a quest for vengeance. The recent midterm elections were rife with a strong element of revenge. The tea party was out to punish President Obama because he hasn’t mended everything they think is wrong with America. In recent years, Republicans wanted vengeance because they felt a sense of entitlement to the White House.

Speaking to the Heritage Foundation shortly after the election, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell articulated the Republicans’ chief goal: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Justice or revenge?

We are assailed on every front by subtle attempts to legitimize vengeance. Watching an NFL football game on TV, I saw a commercial for “Faster,” a new movie featuring a big dude – Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) – with a huge gun. He announces that he is going to avenge the killing of his brother. A voice says “They’re going after everyone on his list.” Johnson then intones, “God can’t save you from me.”

I rather thought that in democratic societies justice is meted out in the courts. Does no one remember that law is the glue that holds societies together? Individual score-settling is a criminal act.

Only a Hollywood film? No, it’s art imitating life. The Associated Press recently reported that administrative judges who hear Social Security disability cases have faced more than 80 threats in the past year from disgruntled claimants “angry over being denied benefits or frustrated at lengthy delays in processing claims.” The same Social Security vigilantes also target the judges’ families.

People may have strong feelings about the need for Connecticut to execute Hayes for murder, but let’s be honest: Capital punishment is itself about killing. It is a conjoined twin of vengeance, which is blatantly immoral. Do we really find any moral high ground in executing someone for murder, especially when we do not need to kill to punish them?

A juror who voted for the death penalty in the Connecticut trial wrestled with that question, clearly grasping the larger dilemma in matters of societal vengeance and the death penalty. Quoted in The New York Times, juror Ian Cassell said, “No one is happy. Nothing is better. Nothing is solved.”

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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