As we approach the Millennium it is sad to see so much of our energy wasted, given to acting out hostility and seeking vengeance rather than striving for the "something better" that is within us as a people. As Clarence Darrow said, "There is in every man that divine spark that makes him reach upward for something higher and better than anything he has ever known."
We know, innately, that killing makes no sense. All our moral, ethical and religious precepts decry it--and something in our essential self, something at the very core of our existence, rebels at the very idea of taking the life of another. We Americans hate the idea of killing so much, in fact, that if anyone breaks the taboo and murders another, why we'll just kill that bastard good and dead. We'll show him. Or her.
Even children understand that killing people to show people that killing people is wrong is an absurd notion. That being so, the fact that we, certainly the most technologically advanced society in the world--aspiring to be the most enlightened, thoughtful and humane--continue to practice this abomination in the face of its repudiation by all other advanced industrial nations on the face of the earth, is a continuing source of consternation.
There are mysteries of human behavior, of course, but when as fundamental an issue as death dealing becomes a social conundrum defying ready explanation, it deserves serious examination. A society that strives to improve itself, just as an individual who wants to be "better," must examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the issue in question, make an informed decision and then, usually in the face of powerful opposition, make the commitment necessary to move to a better place.
Years ago the United States Supreme Court, in a case known as Trop vs. Dulles, described this movement toward betterment when they referred to the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." As the Court acknowledges, the human race is growing, becoming more civilized and enlightened, toward the place to which all religious, ethical and moral teaching urges us to aspire.
As part of that natural progression we have moved beyond barbarity and cruelty. We have come to recognize the ugliness of slavery and human bondage. We no longer celebrate the burning of witches or the stoning of women. Having people split on the rack, drawn and quartered, crushed, their limbs severed or heads cut off is no longer seen as reasonable, just or appropriate. The oppression of women, the exploitation of children, the subjugation of a race or class of people because of a manufactured notion of inferiority or the contrived superiority of others has fallen from grace, if not totally from practice.
If human progress is natural and inevitable, and both history and nature say it is despite all the salaciously revisited, media-exploited evidence to the contrary, what is it that so easily turns us away from the angels of our better nature and toward the lurid, the degrading, the vitriolic, the vengeful?
Simply put, it is fear. The key to the denial of reality, of growth, of our own value and our common human connection, is fear. We all have it; it's part of the human package. But it is the lesser-self part, the negating part. It is the part that says "It' s good where you are. Don't change." It's what doesn't want you to venture toward "better" and will whisper insidiously in your ear about failure. It's the part that says "they" are different, the part that says "other" is bad. It's the part that urges, "Hurt them before they hurt you."
Fear is one of the pieces of the human puzzle, but only one. It is as powerful as we allow it to be. Another piece, even more powerful, is love. Yet as much as we claim to recognize the power and authority of love, we too often lack the courage to make use of it. This even though we know instinctively, as Tolstoy put it so perfectly, that "All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love."
The existence of fear in all of us, however, provides an opening, an opportunity for those who wish to exploit others for their own purposes. And exploit them they will, often in ways so subtle and ingenious they are difficult to detect.
In stressful times, when people are confused and thus more easily manipulated, fear abounds. In the midst of this fear and confusion, voices arise--in the media, in popular organizations, in churches, in business, in positions of political power--and some of these voices, honeyed, articulate, persuasive and highly seductive, cleverly exploit the worst in us by dehumanizing and demonizing others, promoting separateness and giving permission to hate. As a result of this silken cleverness, many lose their footing and grasp at easy appearing, quick-fix solutions: eliminating "the other," for one example. Those who buy into this "solution," usually without full comprehension of what is happening, deny the intrinsic value of others, frustrate the opportunity for full appreciation of themselves and forfeit their most powerful possession: the courage to love.
Today is one of those stressful times. As an increasingly disenchanted body politic is coming to realize, the primary concern of too many now in the arenas of power is self advancement rather than the welfare of the nation or its people. The accumulation of personal wealth and power has supplanted the enhancement of freedom and opportunity for all as the ultimate goal.
But in order for the Ambitious to slake their thirst, the average person's attention has to be diverted. These power-mongers have to keep waving the red flag of fear, devising clever ways to keep people off-balance so they can promote fake, self-serving solutions to "problems" they themselves have conveniently identified. They have to create an apparently worthy adversary so they can appear to be doing heroic battle as they fill their pockets with the trinkets of wealth and power.
Our history is replete with their handiwork. They've used "injuns," "niggers," "The Yellow Peril," the interning of Japanese-Americans, "The Red Menace" and now "illegals" to rally us to their cause. From Manifest Destiny to Anti-Communism, the dynamic is the same: "others" are trying to deter us from our God-given course and must be vanquished. And if the "facts" presented don't add up to the discerning eye, they quickly dish up a heaping portion of fear and loathing to cloud the vision and justify the course taken. Only afterward, when the truth becomes known, do we experience the sense of shame the action taken in our names requires.
Today, absent any more convenient scape-goat, the target is "killers." Crime, of course, and all criminals, are legitimate objects of public concern, but today "killers" wear the bloody shirt while we, again blinded by fear, misinformation, demagoguery and sleight of hand, once again fend off shame as the powers-that-want-to-continue-to-be twist the facts to suit their own purposes.
Tomorrow, when it is understood that death is dealt in our names for political and economic reasons having nothing to do with justice--that humans die so that reputations are enhanced and careers advanced; that the innocent rot on death row along with the mentally ill and brain damaged, along with children, the disadvantaged, minorities and the impoverished who never have a chance to defend against charges brought--shame will come. Sadly, it will come too late for those innocent, ill and disadvantaged, just as it will be too late for those who made a mistake and are truly regretful; for those who came up in hopelessness, murdered in anger and returned to hopelessness, repenting as they lived: alone and in misery.
But today, in order to ward off that encroaching shame, the Ambitious have unveiled a new tactic. Not satisfied with jingoistic attempts to wrap the flag around the apparatus of killing and labeling opponents of capital punishment traitor, they have gone a step further and made the death penalty in America a secular religion. Complete with high priests, robes, liturgy, incantations and all the ceremonial trappings associated with any worshipful process based on faith and contrary to logic, state killing rolls along blessed by prelates who prayerfully gloss over the obscene costs, the grotesque cruelty, the race and class discrimination. Using shameless tricks and emotional blackmail, they glorify the execrable. As the bodies pile up, the chanting and swaying increases in frequency and decibel count as acolytes insist their litany through gritted teeth, hoping against hope that the wheels won't soon fall off.
But fall off they will as the American people, now dulled into submission by the rantings of the Ambitious and cowed by fear and confusion, begin to take in the facts and measure them against their own deeply held beliefs in fundamental principles of truth, fairness and equal justice under law.
In fact, it is these core principles, these "values" whose loss the Ambitious mourn so piously, that will eventually cause them to be driven from the temple. Americans have learned from childhood a creed that will ultimately be the undoing of the moneychangers. Revolutionary ideas like "unalienable rights" to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; notions based on the value and dignity inherent in each regardless of race, creed, color or station, contain within them the seeds of personal power that, once unleashed, will reclaim this society and reaffirm its momentum toward betterment. Today' s Pharisees, weeping, tearing hair and rending garments in public as they cozy up to wealth and power in private, preside over a smoldering public anger which, though now diverted into cynicism, will then become a rage even the most imaginative manipulation cannot control, stinging all with its lash in demand of a reckoning.
As with Pharisees of old, today's authoritarians have usurped people's desire to live together under agreed social limitations, called laws, and turned them to their own ends. All agree to the need for restraint of those who break the law, but the penalties imposed on the law-breaker must accord with the core values of the society. Professing, as did their Biblical counterparts, strict observance of traditional and written law, the sanctimonious declaim on crime and the need for swift and sure justice and have settled, with a little help from their spinmeisters, on death as their symbol of strength. Their willingness to kill, they piously intone, demonstrates the depth of their moral character. Those, then, who refuse to bloody their hands--to support the hooded one in his gory task--are guilty of heresy, frailty and, worse, bleeding heartedness.
Eventually, however, facts outweigh sophistry and posturing. Truth will out. People who have been taught to believe in the fundamental value of human life can only be manipulated by their fear of "the other" for a time, after which maturity demands more than slogans. On this day the Ambitious will need more than magical incantations to keep the faithful at bay.
There is no clever turn of phrase that will explain away the innocent who have died in our chambers of honor. Were not all souls singed as Jesse Tafero's head burst into flame, electrocuted for a crime he did not commit?
Are our streets safer, our children more secure because Joe Spaziano endured 21 years of torture on Florida's death row, surviving five different dates with the executioner, before finally having his conviction overturned by an outraged judge?
Will the incantation of law and order dull the grief of Clarence Brandley, Waiter McMillian, Randall Adams, Rolando Crut, Kirk Bloodsworth, Alejandro Hernandez, Thomas Gladish, Richard Greer, Ronald Keine, Clarence Smith, Andrew Golden, Larry Hicks, Sonia Jacobs, Lawyer Johnson, Wilbert Lee, Freddie Pitts, Federico Martinet Macias, Adolph Munson, Gary Nelson, James Richardson, Johnny Ross, Dennis Williams, Willie Rainge and Kenneth Adams, who spent decades on death row for crimes of which they were innocent? Will it require the killing of countless others not defended in time to avoid the Pontius Pilates of today?
It will not do to make a sacrament of murder. Even swept under the robes of lawful authority, the blood of the brain damaged, mentally impaired, the impoverished and those singled out because of their color will seep out and stain our moral fabric. The consecration of killing as a sop to the fears of the public, fears themselves generated by the malign rhetoric of the same high priests who profit from this use of human sacrifice, confounds logic, debases principle, degrades respect for self and ultimately for life.
But history declares that life, ever insisting itself upward, ever seeking the light, will not, in the end, tolerate such degradation.
At the end of the Dark Ages, power was in the hands of a corrupt clergy and royalty who debauched, plundered and murdered at will. Claiming authority from God and from blood they condemned as heretic anyone who questioned their legitimacy and, smug in the belief that "all knowledge is already known," raged on. From that era, though shackled in ignorance, disciplined by fear and sheathed in superstition, the "ignorant masses", inspired by daring teachers, writers, thinkers, enlightened religious, scientists and other "Humanists," saw that a better way was possible and spawned The Renaissance.
The belief that life has intrinsic value is a thorny one for some, but human development from the depths of history presents a powerful case that people are more than the worst acts they have committed. From Spinoza's "light... uncreated and uncreatable," through Darrow's "divine spark" to Nelson Mandela's recognition that "man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished," the arrogant assumption that humans can be disposed of at the whim of authority is exposed for what it is: atavistic, fear-inspired barbarism.
The Millennium approaches. With it a new dawn?