To continue for a moment the theme of senseless killing for squalid and trivial ends, I’m reading a book of essays by Texas Death Row inmate Gene Wilford Hathorn. He’s been on the Row for 21 years now, and has watched 250 people go to their deaths. In the first essay, he tells how the 24-year-old man in the cell next door (a 17-year-old at the time of his crime) has petitioned the dental department to extract a health tooth, partly as an excuse to leave the cell, and partly because he wanted to feel the ache in his gum, the adrenaline rush that he gets from feeling pain.
This son of two heroin addicts, one of whom, his mother (with whom he confessed he shot heroin before his incarceration) is presently confined in the Texas women’s prison, is so psychologically flawed that pain validates his existence. The more our keepers abase us the more this boy wants to hurt, as physical pain is his method of frustrating the encroachment of emotional anguish.
Hathorn points out that killing runs right through America’s history, from the killing of the Native Americans through slavery, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam.
The killing nature permeates our country’s young heart, and if there are no wars to fight, other Americans — provided they are not wealthy or influential — are sufficient targets for society’s wrath.
Reading the essays (and I’ve only just started) makes me think about two things. The first is what the death penalty does to its victims. Being locked up for 21 years contemplating your own death, having executions scheduled and then postponed, appeals moving forward and then back, is in itself a cruel and unusual form of punishment, even before the killing itself.
I took a look at the Texas Death Row website, perused the long list of “executed offenders” and read their heart-rendingly simple last statements — some expressing regret for their crime, others still protesting their innocence, most taking comfort in God, Jesus or Allah. The website also lists the crimes, some of them truly horrific, like shooting an old couple in the face to rob them of $52 and some beer. But I cannot accept that killing the perpetrator is the right answer. Even if the system worked it would be inhumane, and the evidence is that it doesn’t even come close to working.
The second thing I think about is what it does to other people. What about the people who work on Death Row. The jailors, the wardens, the doctors and dentists. What about the guy who sticks in the needle? Are they just regular people trying to make a living? What do they talk about when they go home to their families? What does working in a killing factory do to a person?
And Hathorn describes very eloquently the other people who are affected – the friends and families of those condemned to die.
Imagine looking into the eyes of someone who will be dead in a few hours, someone you’ve known fo years, and there is nothing you can do to help him. Imagine grasping for something to say and finding nothing … Imagine he and his family having their final visit, stomachs clenching with dread as the time for the guard to say, “Wrap it up!” draws near. Saying their last goodbyes, the children — who may be sons or daughters, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews — understand that they will never see the man alive, but do not understand why. Their wails as adult relatives lead them away are ghastly.