Universal Translator

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Impotence of the Death Penalty

D’you watch Dexter?

In case you’ve not seen this show, it is a series on Showtime and is about a serial killer.  The killer is actually the protagonist.  I came across it after it had been on the air for a few seasons, and watched the first coupla seasons on DVD.

Which was neat, because the DVDs had “bonus features” that included interviews of the people responsible for creating the series.  One of the things that I thought was interesting was a writer trying to describe how they dealt with the idea of making a serial killer the protagonist – how do you get the audience to feel sympathy for someone like that?

“We thought of Richard III,” he explained.  “If you ever read that story, Richard III is a terrible, horrible person.  But Shakespeare has him address the audience directly, and explain what he is doing.  What he is doing is still some terrible stuff, but now the audience has bought into it because – hey! – he asked us to come along for the ride.

“This is why we have so much voice-over in Dexter.  We need to have the audience see things from Dexter’s point of view.”

I thought that was interesting, because usually voice-over is thought of as a story-telling crutch.  Don’t tell me the story, show me.  But the Dexter crew have inverted that, so that what used to be a sign of weak story-telling is now a conscious plot to – well, not humanify – the character, but at least make him relateable.


This season is about Dexter trying to understand religion or, more abstractly, spirituality.  On behalf of his son.  How does a serial killer relate to things like that?

People’s mileage may vary, but I am quite liking this season and mostly because of the introduction of one character:  Brother Sam.

Brother Sam is a murderer who got away with his crime.  Kind of.  Brother Sam actually was targeted by Dexter for killing, and Dex plans on finishing the job.  But it turns out that Brother Sam – while guilty – acknowledges his guilt and has devoted his life toward an attempt to redeem himself.  He has “found God” – quite literally – and acknowledges that he cannot make up for the crime he committed but hopes to do so anyway.  He spends his life trying to help other people who have made similar mistakes, and sometimes that doesn’t work out well for him.

What I admire about the way the season is shaping up so far, and the reason I like the Brother Sam character so much, is that it calls into question Dexter’s entire ethos.  Until now, Dexter had been very meticulous about making sure that the people he killed were also monsters, like him.  Dex understands that he has a sickness, but he has tried to channel it into a constructive force.  If he only kills other monsters, then perhaps he isn’t as bad a monster.  Maybe he is just the force that “bumps back.”

But Brother Sam is a monster – he’s just redeemed himself.  Brother Sam did kill people, and got away with it.  But Brother Sam feels really, really bad about what he did, and that guilt has made him become a force for Good.  Dexter cannot kill Brother Sam because Brother Sam is no longer a monster, but he used to be.

Which means that, maybe, the other monsters Dexter killed didn’t need to be killed either.

* * *

A few months ago I was up in the county seat of one of my neighboring counties, checking out some public deeds for a client.  It was early in the morning and I was listening to the local public radio and I heard a story that just made my jaw drop open.

It seems that, right after the 9/11 attacks, some jackass in Texas decided that those attacks gave him carte blanche to shoot brown people.  He killed a number of “Arab-looking” dudes, and the last person he opened fire on was some poor guy who had emigrated to this country from Bangladesh and was working (all cliches aside) at a convenience store .

“This man came into the store,” the Bangladeshi related, while I listened over the radio, “and he had a shotgun.  ‘Where are you from?’ he asked me, and then raised the shotgun.  I had been trained for this, and I thought he wanted money, so I opened the cash register.  That is when the world exploded.”

This man’s head had been filled with shotgun pellets.  The dude had been shot in the face.  He survived, obviously, but he had suffered some grievous injuries.  Also, his family – which had counted on his sending  $100 or so back to Bangladesh, now had a whole lot less money. 

But what made the story, what made the entire thing something that would be reported on the national news, was the clerk’s efforts afterward to help the guy that shot him.  As I listened, the clerk explained that the guy who shot him had ruined his life, and had impoverished the world.  But, said the clerk, “I am a Muslim.  And my religion teaches that to kill anyone is to diminish the world.  Our world will not be made a better place if this man dies.”  And so the clerk had started a movement to try and get his attacker off of death row.

Just . . . wow.

I listened to that story and I thought to myself, “I could not be as good a man as that guy is.”  And then, when I got home, I looked this story up on the internet.

The first thing I came across was the web site of the guy on Texas’s death row and – let me tell you – what a douchebag.  His site had been set up to try to get him off of the death row gonna die now, but instead of accepting what he had done he tried to excuse it.  He said that he had done “some bad things” after 9/11 but it was only because “he loved  his country so very, very much.”

Really, douchebag?  Really?  You decided 9/11 gave you the right to go out and kill brown people and you are still trying to defend that with the patriotism card?  You killed a bunch of people, destroyed a bunch of families and you are asking for a pass because of 9/11?


* * *

Well . . . that guy’s dead now.  I know this because, a few months ago, I got into a discussion over at Daily Kos about the death penalty and I raised this guy up as someone whose death I wouldn’t mourn, and someone else told me that Texas had finally killed him.

“It’s weird,” I wrote back, “because I feel really bad that I don’t feel really bad about that.

“I am not a big fan of the death penalty.  If you were to ask me whether I think the government should be in the business of killing people, I would tell you ‘No.’  And while I am not a religious man, if I were to identify myself with any particular kind of religion, it would definitely be Buddhism.  I strongly, strongly identify with their idea of compassion.

“But that guy was an asshole.  And I feel bad about the fact that I don’t feel bad that he is now dead.”

Later, somebody wrote me back and explained:  “Hey, don’t worry about it.  You’re a Buddhist, you’re not the Buddha.  If you were the Buddha, you wouldn’t feel this way.  But you’re just a follower, and flawed like everybody else.”

I have to admit, that seems like a simple thing, but I could almost fell my brain unclench when I read that.  I’m not the Buddha.  I can relax.  Good to know.

* * *

This is, I think, the greatest argument for getting rid of the death penalty:  that we recognize people can change.  There is something so fundamental when we kill each other.  When we take another’s life, we are irrevocably foreclosing the forever future they may once have had.  We take away everything that might once have been hopeful about them.

Now, do I think that many or even most people on death row have that capacity?  No, I do not.  But I am not so hubristic as to think that I can know what any of us are capable of.  And – quite frankly – if you gave me just one Brother Sam out of 10,000 killer assholes, I’d think that was a good trade.

We should be better because we should believe that we can be better. 

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