Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Swarzenegger does for 'Tookie'
The execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams yesterday brought to mind Dostoyevky’s claim that it is the way a nation treats its criminals which offers the truest measure of its character. Williams, a huge lumbering muscle-bound freak of a man, had been convicted for killing four people in a robbery 25 years ago. He was undoubtedly a hardened criminal and the person responsible for setting up the deadly Crips gang in Los Angeles, that act of creation alone the cause of countless deaths among young people and innocent people of all ages caught in the crossfire.
In prison on Death Row he seemed to undergo a redemptive transformation. He wrote books-assisted by a journalist co-author- seeking to dissuade youngsters from joining gangs and their conflicts and worked for harmony between the Crips and the Bloods. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. But The Terminator put an end to him. Was he justified?
If one believes in the death penalty maybe so. But I’ve never been convinced of the ethical acceptability or the efficacy of the death penalty. Banning it in the UK has not caused any truly dramatic increase in the murder rate and as for the process of execution, even if it’s by the relatively humane means of lethal injection is pretty uncivilized. The powerful film, Dead Man Walking, telling the story of a vicious murderer being killed in this fashion, convinced me that this way of dispatching people is as horrific as any other. Moreover, I refer to the words in a Commons debate on the death penalty of an unusually intelligent and humane Home Secretary: Douglas Hurd. In June 1988, penalty, he said this:
‘Fierce, honorable arguments, immediately after the event is one thing. It is quite another to institute slow, cold processes of justice, with months filled with arguments of lawyers and the hearing of appeals, at the end of which the Home Secretary may decide, long after the event, that the offender should cease to exist. An execution in this way can surely give only fleeting satisfaction, if any, to the public or those who knew the victim.’
Many of those who sat on the Conservative benches that evening had been selected as candidates in part, because they supported the death penalty yet the free vote at the end of that un-whipped debate was 341-218 for maintaining the ban. In 1994 the margin was even wider. I’m sure that if a loved one of mine were murdered I’d initially think the death penalty should be re-introduced-‘he’ll be out after half his term- it’s us who have the life sentence’- is the inevitable and understandable lament of the bereaved. But the morality and the practicality of the arguments urge us to oppose the death penalty. The USA is an ethically poorer and a less civilized nation for thinking otherwise.