November 16, 2009 in Opinion

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Inconsistencies in life and death

Leonard Pitts Jr.
 

They killed a killer last week.

I kept waiting to feel something when news came that John Allen Muhammad had been executed in Virginia. As a staunch opponent of capital punishment, I wanted some nugget of remorse at the knowledge that the government had taken his life.

But Muhammad’s 2002 sniper attacks hit close to home. He terrorized millions of people in the greater Washington area, where I live, made us fear to gas up our cars, walk in parking lots, wait on buses, made my grandson scared to go trick-or-treating, even wounded a friend of my youngest son.

So I could not manage remorse. Indeed, what I felt was an unsettling, appalling satisfaction that Muhammad is no longer in the world. I still remember the last time an execution caused my emotions to so thoroughly misalign with my convictions: it was in 2001, when Timothy McVeigh was put to death.

When I argue against the death penalty, I tend to lean on a few salient points: It is far costlier than life imprisonment; it is biased by class, race and gender; it is irreversible in the event of error. I use those arguments because there is ample statistical evidence to back them up, and because they are irrefutable.

But I have one other problem with the death penalty: It’s wrong. It debases us. The power of life and death is too awesome to be left in human hands. And here, I know, the abortion opponent wonders how I can square that with support for abortion rights. The answer is simple: I can’t.

Like, I suspect, most pro-choice people, my support for abortion rights hinges upon a visceral rejection of the idea that government can compel a woman to bear a child that she, for whatever reason – rape, incest, deformity, poverty – chooses not to. I suspect I am also like most pro-choice people in being squishy and irresolute about the fact that a human life hangs in the balance of that decision. I suspect we find it easier to think of it as a potential human, not a real one – an oops without a name.

None of this, by the way, is tendered as apology or even justification. Rather, it is simply to observe that where the awesome power of life and death are concerned, “most” of us are guilty of inconsistency.

The classic liberal position, after all, opposes capital punishment and supports abortion rights, the latter often rationalized along the lines of the fractured logic above. The classic conservative position, meanwhile, opposes abortion rights and supports the death penalty, glossing over with equally fractured logic the fact that innocents will be (indeed, “have been”) executed.

With the exception of the Catholic Church, then, and a few other outposts of religiosity, none of us is consistent on these issues of life and death, all of us ignoring truths that indict our deep convictions, striking bargains with conscience in the name of a good night’s sleep.

Into that irresolution falls the execution of John Allen Muhammad.

And what am I to say? I hate the death penalty, but this guy’s rampage touched my life, frightened my children, so I’m OK with it? What kind of sense does that make?

None, of course. It is, if anything, just proof of my humanity – and all the contradictions attendant thereto. It is our nature to seek certitude and resolution, but life is messy and untidy, doesn’t always fit neatly into the boxes we build for it. There are days when being staunch offers no clarity, days when certitudes feel like platitudes and you can no more grab resolution than you can grab smoke.

From our trenches of fixed opinion, we thunder at one another so readily that it is disconcerting when you are forced to wander the gray places between, to acknowledge complexities our certainties don’t always allow us to see. It can give you pause.

I submit that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


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