A Penalty for All of Us

Another week, another death. On June 19, convicted killer and marijuana smuggler Juan Raul Garza became the second person to be executed by federal authorities in just over a week, following the execution of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. Garza's was the 37th execution this year (there were 85 in 2000 and a record 98 in 1999), with three more slated for June and five in July.

They both died in the same padded chair, their life ended by lethal injection.

Neither man deserves our sympathy. Both admitted their crimes and their punishments should have been severe.

But not execution, which is nothing more than state-sanctioned murder, revenge killing dressed up as something more noble, as justice served.

I was unsure whether to write this column. I've hit this subject so many times before that I was unsure I could bring something new to it. But that's not the point.

There is nothing new that can be brought to the table, no argument that can be made, no piece of information that has not been picked over.

We know that capital punishment is unevenly administered, that minorities and the poor are more likely to face death than whites and that killers of white victims are more likely to be executed than killers of minorities. We know that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent to crime and we know that the potential exists that we might kill an innocent man.

None of this is new.

But, again, that's not the point.

The point is that the death penalty makes murderers of us all. And that's why I decided I needed to write this column.

I was troubled by the certainty that attended the McVeigh execution on June 11, by the proclamations of justice and closure made by the families and by politicians.

"The victims of the Oklahoma City bombing have been given not vengeance, but justice," President George W. Bush said after the execution. "Today, every living person who was hurt by the evil done in Oklahoma City can rest in the knowledge that there has been a reckoning."

McVeigh's case should be simple. He admitted that he set the 1995 bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 adults and children. The heinousness and scope of his crime are so large they would seem to raise his execution above any debates.

"Timothy McVeigh is probably the clearest example you can find," Attorney General John Ashcroft told the Washington Post in May. "I see no reason why you shouldn't impose the death penalty on Mr. McVeigh because there might be some debate about the penalty generally."

Ashcroft told the Post that the administration supported the death penalty, but would "remain open to arguments and information and make sure that our justice system is fair."

"But when we have people who have committed heinous crimes, and there's no question about their guilt, I don't know any reason to suspend the imposition of an appropriate penalty," he said.

But who is to determine when there is "no question"? It is a standard that is impossible to meet and, therefore, guaranteed to exacerbate the system's current problems.

As Christopher Hitchens points out in The Nation, McVeigh's admitted guilt does not raise him above the debate.

"It is not possible to be in favor of the death penalty a la carte," he writes. "The state either claims the right to impose this doom or it does not."

He goes on to say that "Subjective considerations about atrocity and wickedness are what the judicial system exists to prevent, or at the very least to contain."

Capital punishment is essentially nothing more than premeditated murder, a revenge killing dressed up as a noble, cleansing act. Simply put, when the state engages in capital punishment, when it sets the date and takes a life, it is engaging in premeditated murder.

French philosopher Albert Camus said in "Reflection on the Guillotine" that the death penalty "adds to death a rule, a public premeditation known to the future victim, an organization which is itself a source of moral sufferings more terrible than death." He said that the death penalty is "the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life."

To hand the state the gun and ask it to pull the trigger may make us feel safer, may create the illusion that we are sending a message that heinous, vicious acts will not be tolerated.

But in doing so, we, as a society, are dragged down to the level of the Timothy McVeighs of the world. That's why I had to write this column.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of two New Jersey weekly newspapers. E-mail

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