Not completely, but there’s been virtually no public debate or opposition voiced about the United States seeking the death penalty for the now convicted mass murderer in the 2018 Tree of Life massacre. Public discussion has focused on the imminent penalty phase as the more important proceeding, with a verdict for the death penalty the overwhelmingly hoped for outcome. Similar to what occurred in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Massacre, where the single juror holdout against the death penalty spared the murderer from execution. That juror was widely treated as someone who had lied during the voir dire about having an open mind.
That may not raise Gen Z and Millennial eyebrows, but to Gen Xers and liberal Boomers like HL this is depressing and another sign that despite the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, America has regressed in important aspects of its ethical and moral consciousness.
I am Jewish, have dear friends from the wonderful Squirrel Hill Jewish community in Pittsburgh and would like to believe that given the chance I would have had the courage to risk death that day to kill the murderer myself. But that is very different than the United States, The People, deciding to kill this or any murderer “In Cold Blood”. It’s lost on most in the aforementioned younger generations, even those among them that have read Capote’s monumental non-fiction novel, that the title refers not only to the way two men killed four Kansas farmers on November 15, 1959, but what The People of Kansas did to the convicted murderers on April 14, 1965, after three unsuccessful appeals to SCOTUS, none disputing the fact of the killings.
One day in law school, 50 plus years back, our criminal law professor, Herbert Wechsler told the class he had worked 40 plus years to abolish the death penalty. That left an impression. That day, not that he was right, than that legal causes existed worth that type of persistence and fidelity. And I started thinking about the issue. Soon after, SCOTUS declared all then existing death penalties unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia. The long pendency of Furman and the time taken by state and federal governments to adjust their laws to that ruling resulted in no executions in America from June 2, 1967 to January 17, 1977, when Utah executed a murderer, whose crime and punishment was chronicled in another novel, The Executioner’s Song. The book won the Pulitzer, less a measure of the quality of Norman Mailer’s writing there than of how big and heated was debate over the death penalty and its resumption after a decade in which the world kept turning and the beat went on.
During and after that I continued to think and study the pros and cons of the death penalty, and decided to oppose the penalty in all cases, to vote consistent with that position and to do whatever I could while in public service to advance it. Decades later I still think carefully about the lives lost in Squirrel Hill, the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo and in many other massacres where the murderer(s) live to face American justice. I think hard and prayerfully about the immense pain experienced by families and friends when murderers of their loved ones are spared execution to live out their lives. And I think equally hard about the brutalization we all experience when a life no longer threatening ours is extinguished in our names. When the government pursues a killing in cold blood on our behalf.
Being Jewish I am not endowed with “certitude” of the kind some other religionists say they possess. Not that I am right nor even that either side of this debate is right. I assign that perfect knowledge only to God, much like the Shakers. But I’m damn certain that serious discussion of the death penalty in America needs resuscitation and resurrection.