Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Tim Wise: Killing One Monster, Unleashing Another -- Reflections on Revenge and Revelry

[Do me a favor, send this beautiful essay to anyone you know who was mindlessly celebrating the death of Bin Laden. Tim Wise really hits the key points of the problematic revelry around the act of killing as if we had just won the Final Four or Super Bowl. What kind of mindset is involved and what does it say about us as individuals and a culture?]

Killing One Monster, Unleashing Another: Reflections on Revenge and Revelry
Tim Wise

There is a particularly trenchant scene in the documentary film, Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, in which Blecker — who teaches at New York University School of Law and is the nation’s most prominent pro-death penalty scholar — travels to Tennessee’s Riverbend Prison for the execution of convicted murderer, Daryl Holton. Blecker is adamant that Holton, who murdered his own children, deserves to die for his crime. Yet, when he gets to the prison on the evening of Holton’s electrocution, Blecker is disturbed not only by the anti-death penalty forces whom he views as dangerously naive, but also by those who have come to literally cheer the state-sponsored killing. He agrees with their ultimate position, but can’t understand why they feel the need to celebrate death, to party as a life is taken. The event is somber, he tries to tell them. Human life is precious, he insists; so precious, in Blecker’s mind, that occasionally we must take the lives of killers so as to reinforce that respect for human life. But there is no reason to revel in the death of another, he tries to explain. While I disagree with Blecker on the matter of the death penalty, I felt sympathy for him in that moment, trying to thread the needle between advocacy of killing — any killing — and the retention of the nuance that allows the supporter of such a thing to still preach about the sanctity of life. It was a nice attempt, and heartfelt.

Of course, his pleas for solemnity fall on deaf ears. His ideological compatriots cannot comprehend him. They even misunderstand his position on the ultimate issue, presuming at first that his unwillingness to cheer the death of one as evil as Holton means he must oppose the death penalty, and that he doesn’t care about the children Holton killed. Ultimately, Blecker walks away, clearly shaken, not in his support for capital punishment, but by the way in which others on his own side seem to literally glorify death, even need it.

I was reminded of this scene today, while watching coverage of the celebrations around the country (but especially in Washington D.C. and Manhattan), which began last night when it was announced that Osama bin Laden was dead. In front of the White House were thousands of affluent and overprivileged (and mostly white) college students from George Washington University (among the nation’s most expensive schools), partying like it was spring break. Never needing an excuse to binge drink, the GW and Georgetown collegians responded to the news of bin Laden’s death as though their team had just won the Final Four. That none of them would have had the guts to actually go and fight the war that they seem to support so vociferously — after all, a stint in the military might disrupt their plans to work on Wall Street, or to become high-powered lawyers, or just get in the way of their spring formal — matters not, one supposes. They have other people to do the hard work for them. They always have.

In New York, the throngs assembled may have been more economically diverse, but the revelry was similar. Lots of flags, chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” and an overall “rah-rah” attitude akin to that which one might experience at a BCS Bowl game, and once again, mostly led by guys who would never, themselves, have gone to war, to get bin Laden or anyone else.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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