Saturday, October 11, 2008

Violently Opposed

I was talking to Clemo this evening (thanks for calling!) and the subject of capital punishment came up. Don't ask. It just did. It was on my mind because, in recent memory, a commenter on another blog spoke proudly of his support of the practice. I'm opposed to capital punishment for a host of reasons but I get that it's also a highly emotional issue in ways that make it impossible to change some people's minds. However, on another couple of levels, for me, it's a pretty practical one. On the level of humanity and morality the system is irretrievably flawed so that it simply doesn't make sense to me to kill someone when it's so likely the wrong person will be killed. On that practical level, though, it's more expensive to kill someone within this system than it is to lock them up until they do the croaking on their own. (I don't have the stats to hand just now but I'm certain that any anti-capital punishment site will serve them up to you easily. It's not something I've heard just once.)

Clemo: Blah blah blah* the system sucks blah but blah capital punishment.

Me: As a New Englander I've got one base argument. It's more expensive to kill someone than to keep them locked up.

Clemo: (Beat) Oh.


Clemo: OK but what about the basic human need for revenge.

Me: (beat) Um....Buddhism?

Interestingly enough when Clemo called I was in the middle of watching A History of Violence. I finished the movie when we got off the phone and it's quite serviceable as a mainstream exploration of the aforementioned basic human need for revenge. Viggo does really good work, as do Maria Bello, William Hurt (who I saw on the street the other day) and Ed Harris among others. What I like most about it, though, is the actual violence. This shouldn't be surprising from a woman who watched Xena for years for the stage combat. I don't know enough about the director, David Cronenberg, to say for sure but I think it's a thing of his to avoid gratuitous violence while making extremely violent films. This one is no exception. It's a movie populated with violent people who do violent things and who inspire nonviolent people to violence as well. (Any second now the word is going to lose all meaning to me, what about you?) None of it, however, is made light of nor is it glossy and pretty. I was disgusted on a relatively regular basis. Not one drop of blood, though, failed to be in the service of moving the plot and teaching the lesson.

Here I'm going to talk about the lesson and that's going to involve spoilers in case you don't want some of those.

It's a story about a guy who lived a life steeped in acts of violence against others and made a choice to stop. He worked diligently for years to remove the part of himself who perpetrated those acts and became the local diner owner in a small town, a guy who would never harm another person. The film meets up with him at a time when the life of the original violent guy's world invades the new guy's life in unavoidable ways. The movie is a discussion of how violence impacts a personality, many personalities, and an exploration of whether or not it's possible to fully leave behind violence once you've been exposed to it.

Speaking of which, just after I watched the John Adams series I read a blog entry from a Christian homeschooling mom who had rented the series from their local library and watched it as a family learning opportunity. Apparently they almost stopped after the first episode (here comes another small spoiler) because there is a brief scene where someone is tarred and feathered. The mother seemed to be slightly resentful that the reviews she'd read had not cited the movie as being violent. On the one hand she was showing it to a wide age range of kids so I understand that it may not have been appropriate for all of her children and it would have been nice to have known. On the other hand it's a movie based on the autobiography of a man who not only lived but engineered the Revolutionary War (hello, I'm from New England, that's what we call it). Next to the Civil War this is probably the most violent and turbulent time in US History. I think it's only right that they showed the actual violence of the time. I think, in fact, that it would have been irresponsible of the filmmakers to have removed the violence. A lot of people, myself included, are learning key historical lessons from this movie, to clean it up so that Tipper Gore (sorry, Ms. Gore, I know you've done a lot of good in yoru life but you will forever be the Excessive Warning Label Lady) will give your flick the stamp of approval.

Life is violent. We live in a country that condones capital punishment while using a system that routinely executes innocents is proof of that. Our country is engaged in a war (don't call it a political action) which is routinely blowing the youth of America up into teensy bits. Guns in schools. Death by shitty health care. Michael Vick. To reduce this violence we have to, I think, be honest about it. Pretending it doesn't exist will do us more harm than good in my Vic Mackey-loving opinion.

*No offense to the speaker, here, I just can't remember exactly what we said right before this exchange.


  1. It was a pleasure to hear your voice again, after so many years. I'd like to make it clear that I do not support capital punishment, even though my organization, VEGETARIANS FOR CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, does. My alternative, of course, is to make them all wear reallllly uncomfortable shoes.

    I didn't get to say it at the end, but much love to you, Kizz.

  2. Anonymous8:15 AM

    * "History of Violence" = great flick

    * "John Adams" - haven't seen it yet, but apparently I have to, because I haven't heard a single person do anything but RAVE about it yet

    * in one way I have a hard time believing it's cheaper to house, feed, entertain (they get cable, you know), educate (they can read if they want to), and employ (who do you think makes all your license plates?) psychopaths than it is to kill them, but in another way I don't. It SHOULD be cheaper to kill them, but the way the system puts five dozen layers of beauracracy on the proceedings allows these people to be incarcerated for an interminable period before they're ever put in the chair.

    If the system simply said "You're guilty, here's a blindfold and a cigarette, now go stand in front of that wall" and then gave a minimum wage-earning prison guard a $500 shotgun loaded with $50 buckshot the order to aim at the guy's head and pull the trigger, capital punishment would be a HELL of a lot cheaper.

    * some of capital punishment is about revenge, and not all of us are Buddhists. If somebody killed (or raped) my son or my wife, you'd better believe I'd want them dead, and I'd be first in line begging to fire the shot.

    However, that's not the point behind capital punishment - or any punishment, for that matter. The point is deterrence. The point is to get somebody who's thinking about committing a crime to say to him- or herself, "Hey, if I get caught, I could DIE!" which then (hopefully) makes them change their minds about committing that crime.

    * You're "but we could be killing the wrong guy" argument has one gaping hole in it, imho. You could say the same thing about every person covicted for committing every crime that is not deserving of the death penalty. Should they escape serving their prison sentences or paying their fines because the system might be wrong. Should we just not bother punishing people for their crimes just because the system MIGHT be wrong?

    Am I oversimplifying here? Sure I am. But do you get my point? Yes, the system's flawed, and it always will be. Why? Because human beings are running it and we are flawed entities. If you're looking for a flawed system you're wasting your time. Accept the system, try to improve it, but use it or (in the case of the justice system) anarchy will reign.

    * Because I'm a wiseass, I'll close with a Dennis Miller statement I've always found funny, but also believed in: "I think we need to get Biblical with these terrorists. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. They kill one of us, we kill one of them. Now I know that's a heinous thing to say. Sociologists will tell you that if we do that we lower ourselves to their level and they win.

    All right, maybe they do win, but, umm... nice to know a couple of their boys won't be at the trophy ceremony, huh?" :)

  3. Anonymous8:39 AM

    OOOOOPS! I meant to say, "if you're looking for a PERFECT system..."

    D'OH! (forehead smack!)

  4. Clemo, it was good to hear your voice too. Love you back.

    Falcon, I get your point I just really don't fucking agree with it. It costs more because the system at least tries to be sure without a shadow of a doubt that they're killing the right person and those measures cost money. Also, the special housing and guards and the measures you have to take to keep the guards from going nucking futs are expensive. The number of people on death row who did not do what they're accused of doing is a lot bigger than you care to think about. There are numerous studies showing that capital punishment is not a deterrent, not even a little. Crimes of passion, nutcases, people who just don't care, it simply doesn't register. For the people for whom it would register prison is already as deterring as one gets.

    Now, a scenario. Someone kills (or rapes) your family and someone is caught, tried and swiftly killed, perfect world it's by you even. Then 6 months later someone else's family is killed (or raped) in exactly the same way as your family and, after some investigation, it becomes clear that THIS person is the one who actually killed (or raped) YOUR family. You've killed someone and you've left other families vulnerable to this tragedy in the service of you getting an answer, any fucking answer will do. Imprisonment is different because you can make a change, you can take it back - again not perfectly (See:Rubin Hurricane Carter) - but you can't take back dead. While we work toward a perfect system I think we owe it to our kids not to kill the wrong people just so we get to kill someone. (See also: The people of Iraq.)

  5. Anonymous1:13 PM

    Although not terribly fond of violent cinema, I must say I like "sanitized" violence in cinema even less. Violence is ugly, violent death is unpleasant (how's that for understatement). Remember the "A Team?" Bullets flying everywhere, blizzards of them. I don't recall anyone ever getting hit. There are TV shows now not much different. Give me Sam Peckinpah if you are going to have shoot-em-ups.

    I have no firm convictions about the death penalty.

  6. I have no certain feelings about the death penalty, either, but I'm definitely leaning in the "not such a good idea" direction. I'm just not sure.

    I actually TRY to expose my children to measured amounts of violence, particularly when it's delivered in the form of history lessons. We watched footage of police brutality during the Civil Rights era. I will absolutely let them watch John Adams - tarring and feathering included* - because life IS violent and I want them to know that. I also want them to have an opportunity to THINK about that violence in the safety and support of the environment that Mr. Chili and I create.

    *I'm actually glad that it was the actual violence this Christian homeschooler mom was opposed to, and not the fact that they stripped the guy naked and there were a few seconds of penis on the screen.

  7. Chili, I have to admit to being very surprised to hear you say that you don't come down on a certain side of the death penalty question. Given the values you are always working with I assumed they would lead to only one choice on an issue like this. Learn something new every day, right?