Friday, December 02, 2005

The Quality of Mercy

Well, Bush, I see that our mutual friend Arnold is faced with the weightiest of all decisions: whether another man should live or die. No man, as I see it, should be burdened with such a responsibility, but that's what comes of our national insistence on the barbaric old custom of putting people to death--a custom long since abandoned in every Western country save our own. As I recall, you showed no mercy as Governor of Texas. You signed numerous death warrants on the rather casual say-so of your Gonzales, now attorney general of these United States. But this in itself is old, if documented history. Water, to put it all too kindly, under the bridge.

Now it's Arnold's turn. I believe he has declined a couple of appeals for clemency already, leaving some doubt as to whether he'll be open to this one. Stanley Tookie Williams, founder of the Crips street gang, has no hesitation in admitting to an atrocious past--though apparently he still denies responsibility for the murders for which he was convicted, nearly a quarter century ago. His plea for mercy is based on what he has managed to do with his life since then, from his prison cell, as a writer of children's books and a protocol for peace treaties between gangs, and as a leading activist against gang violence.

There are many, I know, who have come to Williams's support, and there will be many more voices heard before his scheduled execution date in a couple of weeks from now. There will be the voices of the death penalty proponents, too. For myself, this is, as the detestable phrase goes, a no-brainer. First, I reject the arguments for the death penalty. A society that practices the same violence against those it condemns has no claim to enlightenment. Second, I do believe in the quality of mercy: it ennobles those who practice it, whether earned or unearned by its recipient. And third, this man in particular has made every effort to demonstrate, through practical action, remorse for his past actions, and his potential to make a positive contribution to the common good while serving a life sentence. His death would be a useless act of vengeance.

Speaking of which, I found myself wondering, this morning, whether I would feel the same as the mother of that little girl in Florida, whose abductor and murderer was sentenced, yesterday, to death. She wanted him dead immediately, no delay, no appeals. He was still breathing, she complained, outraged: her daughter was not. Why should she, the mother, have to go through the agony of waiting for years while her daughter's convicted killer eked out time through the appeals process?

Who could fail to empathize with this woman's pain and anger? And, as I say, I do wonder whether I might not feel the same as her in similiar circumstances. Would my reasonable self fly out the window? Would I, in my pain and anger, be demanding death? I can't sit here and swear I wouldn't. There are those, however, in the same situation, who have extended extraordinary forgiveness and mercy toward those who have so desperately wronged them. All things considered, I hope that I might be among them.

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