Tuesday, December 13, 2005

An Unbridgeable Gulf?

I watched Larry King last night. The topic of discussion was the upcoming execution of Stanley Williams. The guests included famous defense attorney Mark Geragos, motivation guru Tony Robbins, the prosecutor in Williams’ murder trial, conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, actor and anti-death penalty activist Mike Farrell, and Sister Helen Prejean, the nun depicted in “Dead Man Walking.”

The guests made many interesting points, but Dennis Prager raised two of the most interesting ones. First, he said that he supported the death penalty, believed that Williams should die, and that all who support the death penalty should be willing to carry it out themselves in a legal fashion, as he would be if called upon to do so. I wonder what kind of executions he’d be willing to commit if they were sanctioned methods. Would he be willing to boil someone in oil? Would he be willing to strangle, stone, beat, stab, or otherwise torture someone to death? Would he really be willing to pull switches administering drugs of a “lethal cocktail” if he knew that dying this way may often be accompanied by torturous pain and suffering? The second point Prager made was that anyone who believed that an Adolf Eichmann should die but that Williams should not was being morally inconsistent. But I wonder if there’s a true moral equivalence between what Eichmann did and what Williams was found guilty of doing, or if people should always be enthusiastically willing to do the unpleasant things that they believe someone needs to do.

Last night’s discussion heated up for a moment when Mike Farrell exclaimed that he found Prager disgusting for licking his lips with glee over the impending execution. Prager retorted that he was disgusted with Farrell for always taking the side of convicted murderers and ignoring the suffering of their victims and the victims’ families. Farrell replied that he was trying to help lift humankind out of the destructive caveman mentality of an eye-for-and-eye. Prager concluded that there was a “moral gulf” between Farrell and himself.

I agree that the there is a very wide gulf of opinion between Mr. Farrell and Mr. Prager. It may, in fact, be an unbridgeable one. But I wonder if a gulf needs to separate them as human beings who both presumably want to love and be loved, to give and receive goodness, to be happy, and to have the best for themselves and the world. I wonder if there’s any way of softening the increasingly adversarial stance that we see in the media, in politics, and in interpersonal relations, and of learning how to dialogue with one another in a spirit of mutual respect and empathy. Is it necessary to give up one’s opinions to do this, or is it only necessary to open one’s mind and heart to understanding where the other person is coming from, to acknowledge what truth may lie in opposing views, and to respect and value the other person as a human being?

I believe that capital punishment is wrong in most or all cases and that it’s doubly wrong to take pleasure in seeing someone die this way. But I don’t want to allow myself to succumb to the kind of devaluation, dehumanization, and hatred for those who disagree with me on this or anything else that may well underlie the murderous acts that landed people such as Williams on death row and ultimately in the death chamber and grave.

Stanley “Tookie” Williams died at 12:35 AM PST this morning. As his supporters left the witness area after he died, they shouted, “The state of California just killed an innocent man!"

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