Thursday, October 19, 2006

Texas Death Penalty and the Culture of Life

Fifteen hours before the State of Texas was going to kill him with a lethal injection, inmate Michael Dwayne Johnson, 29, killed himself by slitting his juggular vein and his arm with a sharpened piece of metal the size of a popcicle stick. The suicide was skillfully timed to evade Texas "death watch" inspections every 15 minutes. I'm no expert on this but slitting your own jugular vein has to be a bit harder than slitting your wrists and the cuts must have been deep and broad to make sure he wouldn't be "rescued." At the same time, he had the discipline to write "I didn't do it" in his own blood before becoming unconscious. The message and the rare successful suicide on death row, marked a rebuke to a state whose capital punishment system is an exception within American overall exceptionalism. With some 30 executions in a typical year (more than a third of the annual national total in recent ones) Texas belongs in a special category of retentionist nations for whom the death penalty is not just a permitted punishment but a compulsive act of political power. Johnson's case was routine for Texas and disproves the oft stated claim that the American death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst. No Ted Bundy, Johnson was convicted of murdering a 27 year old man at his gas station, apparently because Johnson and a buddy could not pay for their gas. His buddy, however, solved the "prisoners dilemma" first and received 8 years in prison after testifying against Johnson. Johnson, insisted it was his friend who did the shooting. To make matters grimmer. Johnson was only 18 at the time of the crime. Were he 17 at that time, the 8th Amendment would now have prevented his execution (due to the Roper v. Simmons decision of the Supreme Court a couple of years ago).

The maccabre act reminds us how essentially totemic, magical (and ok, yes, primitive) the death penalty is. In this one unique practice, the state (acting through its symbolic stand-ins prosecutors and executioners) demands that the crime be repeated, this time on the body of the condemned. No where else in our entire legal system would such an act of purely symoblic repetition be demanded. (We don't knock down the house of a contractor who builds a house that falls down, nor do we rape rapists or beat assaulters). While many in Texas (including temporarily transplanted Texan George W. Bush who carried out more than 100 executions while governor of Texas) speak of believing in a culture of life, their death penalty belongs to a cult of death, requiring all citizens to partake of what amounts to a public sacrifice. That such a cult might survive in modern society and be attractive to those traumatized by violence or simply by late modern culture, might be unsurprising, but the central role of the modern state in that cult is less obvious and more alarming.


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