I’ve written a great many words about the death penalty over the past week (here and here) and many people have seen fit to read them, to think about them, to share them widely across the internet, and to discuss them with me. For this I have been extremely grateful.
I think it’s safe to assume that not a single one of the people who attended the GOP debate last night read any of those words. That’s not surprising; I’m an academic blogger with a fairly narrow readership. Of course, the debate audience likely also didn’t read this excellent and unsettling piece about Cameron Todd Willingham. And they haven’t read anything about Troy Davis. They certainly don’t know the names of any of the people who have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence came to light. In fact, they probably don’t know that any such people exist.
I would happily wager that they haven’t read much of anything about the death penalty they so vigorously applauded. Their support for it is, in the words of Sister Helen Prejean, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They do it reflexively, without a care in the world. They hear “justice” and, like Pavlov’s dogs, they salivate. But they haven’t spent any time considering what “justice” means; the only context in which they seem to understand it is when it is used as a synonym for vengeance.
This is the justice that is done to someone else. Never to them, never to anyone they care about or have even met. That situation is one they cannot even imagine; their privileged position affords them the opportunity to sit in judgment of another person without even considered what life must be like for someone who ends up on death row or for someone who cares about a death row inmate. Indeed, for a great many, their position is so privileged that they do not even recognize that privilege exists.
This is what underlies the applause and this what underlies Rick Perry’s absolute certainty that not a single one of the people on death row in Texas might be innocent of the crime for which he has been condemned. And this is what separates me from the applauding audience members and from someone like Rick Perry; I know what death row looks like, I’ve talked with condemned men, and because of my interaction with the death penalty in this country I’ve been given a good look at the privileged life I lead.
There is nothing to applaud when people die. There is nothing to applaud when people fail to examine their own lives and the good fortune they have had. There is nothing to applaud when our leaders do not understand the difference between justice and vengeance. There is nothing to applaud when people believe that the only thing our government can do properly is inject some citizens full of poison.
The deaths that this audience applauded are the deaths of human beings, more than 200 human beings. No matter what they did — and I don’t pretend that they were all innocent, kind, or virtuous — they were human beings. Their deaths ought not to be cheered like we would cheer at some sporting event. Their deaths did not make us safer and they certainly did not make us better. What that audience applauded was its own smug self-satisfaction, its distinct pleasure at not knowing or caring or empathizing.
By the time you read this, you’ll likely know that the progressives are already making jokes about Rick Perry and about the blood-thirsty audience. I began to see them on Twitter less than an hour after the debate’s conclusion. But there isn’t anything funny about what happened. It signals, in fact, how deeply divided we are in this country: this crowd believes that Americans fall into two camps, but it isn’t the divide that Republicans politicians have been suggesting between the “real” Americans who love freedom and family values, on the one hand, and some other “fake” Americans who hate those things, on the other. This spontaneous applause demonstrates the divide as it actually us: between those with whom these supposed “real” Americans can identify and those with whom they cannot. In the former camp are the Americans whose life experience is similar to the life experience of these audience members; they are similar in appearance, they grew up in similar circumstances, they face similar daily challenges. In the latter camp is everyone else, those who don’t look like “real” Americans, whose names don’t sound like “real” American names, whose religion is not the dominant one, whose life experiences do not bear even a remote resemblance to the experiences of the “real” Americans in that audience. And because the “real” Americans cannot recognize how privileged are the lives they lead, how well-off they are in so many ways, they cannot empathize in any way with those other Americans; indeed, far from attempting to care about their plight, they do not even consider those other Americans. They are not objects of care or respect and thus, when some of them commit terrible crimes and are executed, these “real” Americans cheer those executions because they are not “real” deaths. They are, instead, better likened to the way we destroy the dangerous dogs that snap at our children. We are so deeply divided in this country that one group cannot even recognize that the deaths they are applauding are the deaths of human beings like themselves, who once had hopes and dreams, plans for the future, and families who loved them. No one should be surprised, then, that these “real” Americans don’t want to be taxed to provide much-needed basic services for others or that they refer to people, not actions, as “illegal.”
The two minutes shown in the video clip above are, for me, absolutely heart-breaking; those two minutes speak volumes about the state of affairs in this country. This crowd, the one that broke out into spontaneous, extended applause at the mention of the death of more than two hundred people, is the pro-life crowd. They profess a deep and abiding belief in Christianity and blithely ignore the messages of forgiveness and mercy at the very heart of their religion. They are fiscally conservative and cheer for a shockingly expensive, unnecessary government expenditure. They have a fundamental distrust of the government and can’t wait to vote for someone who believes that the government — with all of its many, many flaws — ought to be in the business of deciding life and death.
This is either a stunning display of dishonesty or of stupidity. Either way, it is all terrifying and profoundly sad. It actually makes me feel that this is a group of people as disconnected from me and my experiences as they are from those whose deaths they applauded. The difference is that, if they think about this at all, it pleases them. I am unsure how we bridge that divide, but I am absolutely convinced that such a deep division on the very nature of our relationship to one another ought to be considered a crisis by anyone who cares about the future of this country.