Friday, May 23, 2014

Firing squads in an "enlightened" society....really?

Bombs almost daily killing dozens in Iraq; explosives hitting election rallies for Assad in Syria; the largest killing spree in eastern Ukraine by Russian "separatists" and more killings in Nigeria from Boko Haram, while the world searches for some 250 young women still hidden in the custody of that radical Islamist terrorist 'gang'.....and then there is this...
In the United States, following a botched "drug" injection to kill an inmate, several states are looking at restoring the "firing squad" as the state method of capital punishment, a method that many thought had been removed from the arsenal of the government decades ago.*
Of course, the initiative for these new 'firing squad' bills comes from both the 'wild west' and the south east, where justice and vengeance are so enmeshed that even a "Philadelphia lawyer" would have trouble separating them. Also on the agenda of some states is  a return to the electric chair and the gas chamber. So anyone who thinks the people of the United States are engaged in an enlightened triumph of humanitarianism had better take a second look at the evidence and reconsider.
The evidence that the civil society is suffering erosion from the pressure of a culture of violence, win-at-all-costs, "get the other guy before he gets you" mentality is like a neck collar that continues to tighten with both anonymity and impunity for those who are leading the attack.
I first heard the notion of "do it to the other guy before he does it to you" from a child who was raised in extreme poverty as one of thirteen children. There were no floors in the house and the children had no winter shoes to fend off the below zero temperatures on their way to school, nearly a mile from their home. I can almost recall the moment when those words pierced my ears; my head literally bolted in shock; and my memory inscribed the words in indelible ink for future reference. For one of the very few times in my life, I was lost for words.
Since that statement crossed my threshold, I have reflected on the meaning and the depth of all aspects of poverty, not only the lack of dollars of income on which to raise a family, but also the poverty that infects the way one sees the world. Poverty of what is considered fairness; poverty of what we might call legitimacy and value as a human being; poverty of, yes, those things that everyone else has and shows off in social settings, but also the poverty that makes one stay away from those venues, in order not to have to demonstrate one's inadequacy by comparison; poverty of experience in travel, reading, concerts and even in choices of nourishment. And, mixed into those galling and impoverishing aspects of scarcity, one has to factor in some kind of awareness of a Supreme Being, perhaps as antidote for the pain, or as a power that leaves those 'without' pining in the corners of our store doorways, under the bridges of our freeways, and in the back allies of our towns and cities, in too many cases attempting to medicate their impoverishment with various legal and illicit pain-killers. And then there is the poverty of expectation, in which one believes that the chances of moving out of desperate situations falls each day one survives. Of course, there are the exceptional and occasional stories of Horatio Alger 'victories' that through chance of a casual meeting, or a lottery ticket's numbers coming up, or a mentorship program that reaches out, or an inspirational story that actually infects one with hope, determination and the courage to climb out of the 'manhole' of hopelessness.
Interesting word, 'manhole' given that it is used to describe a path to our sewers, both storm and effluent, in which those whose lives were on the edge sought refuge from the 'upper' world. A lower world, in which those whose lives have been distorted by their circumstances, imperiled by their surroundings and left to wander through the darkest places of our collective and civic blindness, ignorance and apathy always beckons an 'upper world' to consider whether and how to reconcile their lives with those below. Of course, those below, for the most part, are those who fall victim to the state, through its punishments, sanctions and its vision of justice and vengeance. To the degree that a culture considers rehabilitation an integral component of its responsibility, not only for the specific crime that has been committed, but also for the conditions that made that crime even conceivable, to that degree one could consider the culture to be enlightened.
We do associate enlightenment with some kind of recognition of barbarity that has filled our history books with gallons of ink, while we considered our "progress" to be a more humane way to confront both the incidents that we consider criminal and punishable, but also the conditions in which those events were conceived, planned and executed. And enlightenment does not start or end with the prison system. It starts with the moment of conception of a child, and even before that with the conception of the child's parents and grandparents, in and through the notion of parenting that comprises language, body gestures and physical acts when encountering behaviour considered unacceptable from the child. And, as we have come to realize, both from common sense and from research, enlightened parents do not tend to raise children who become criminal, (again allowing for exceptions). And enlightened teachers and administrators who spend considerable time with the children of a neighbourhood, are especially aware of the degree of enlightenment that is being practiced by the parents and guardians of the children in their classrooms. Even the measure of enlightenment of the educators themselves, including their capacity for empathy, compassion and fairness in their pursuit of assisting the development of those children will significantly impact the trajectories of the lives of those children.
And, it must not escape notice that if the public leaders are engaged in language and actions that demonstrate a brutality, a kind of insouciance, a high level of narcissistic pursuit of personal  goals at the expense of the "public good", then the children watching will inevitably be infused with a spirit of disappointment and discouragement and perceived unfairness, and whether or not they even know the word 'enlightenment' they will know intuitively that it is absent from the public consciousness.
No matter how cynical and arrogant our political leaders are or become after they assume office, our children, like our pets, know intimately and indelibly how "fair" and how "just" and how "decent" and how "enlightened" is the world in which they are growing up. And in every town and city and hamlet and village, there are stories about a poverty of spirit that embody and demonstrate the pain of self-loathing which cannot be reduced to a personality problem disconnected from the surrounding culture. And the stories of self-loathing, while considered by many to be also of self-pity without considering the many incidents and encounters that generated that contempt, merge into the gangs of defiance and revenge, especially in children who have been given or have rejected options of 'enlightenment' that include negotiation, and meditation and a third party intervention, all of them based on the notion that together we can and will find a reasonable, fair and just solution to our problem, without inflicting all culpability and responsibility on one or two persons.
When the society becomes deaf to the calls for a renewed and critical examination of the level of enlightenment it supports and practices, and replaces those calls with virulent calls for enhanced killing and punishing measures of its most deprived and most desperate individuals, especially at a time when the numbers of those dispossessed is growing exponentially, it is time for those of us who have and who have been exposed to the better angels of our humanity, through literature, art, music, dance and all forms of creativity and the creative expression of enlightened ideas and visions to call out the artists and the creative voices among us to bring the ship of state back to a harbour of civility, one that we can and need to create, or to re-create if we have lost sight of its importance, far from the cruelty of the hurricanes and the cyclones and the tornadoes and the sharks and the impalas that would have us return to the most base savagery that nature has within its bounds.
And a return to the firing squads and the gas chambers is and will only embolden those whose hearts have been frozen and whose eyes have been shut to the pain and the agony and the poverty of all aspects of the lives of millions, even among the "developed" world, of which the United States would consider itself a leader.
And if leadership no longer insists on envisioning and enacting enlightenment, then where are we headed?

*The botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate last month using a previously untried drug cocktail has prompted intense debate about how states carry out the death penalty.

Now state representatives in Wyoming have directed officials to draft a firing-squad bill to be brought before the next legislative session.
And in neighbouring Utah, a Republican senator said that he will introduce firing-squad legislation at the next session too. The state outlawed execution by firing squad for inmates condemned to death in 2004, although kept it as an option for convicts sentenced before that year.

The firing squad was once a common method of execution in the US. But just three prisoners have been executed by that manner in America since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 and the firing squad is only on the statute books as a back-up option in two states.
Several states are now taking a fresh look at firing squads as lethal injection has become increasingly difficult after European pharmaceutical companies stopped exporting drug compounds used for the death penalty.
Tennessee has already passed a measure to reintroduce the electric chair and Missouri is considering a proposal that would allow the use of both gas chambers and firing squads.

The impact of the drugs' shortage was horrifically illustrated last month in Oklahoma when Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer, finally died of a heart attack more than 40 minutes after officials started to administer an untried drug cocktail.
Death penalty opponents have argued that the restoration of the firing squad would breach the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment.
 (By Philip Sherwell, From Irish Independent and Daily Telegraph, May 23, 2014)

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