Today’s New York Times reports that San Diego federal judge Larry Alan Burns was appointed to oversee the Tucson murder case. Apparently, one factor in his selection was Burns’s experience in federal death penalty cases.
Until I read that, I hadn’t thought much about what would happen to Jared Loughner, who committed this atrocity. I don’t oppose the death penalty in all cases, certainly not in all cases of mass murder. I don’t know very much about Loughner’s many victims, either, whose ranks include Christina Taylor Green, a wonderful nine-year-old girl. President Obama noted in his very moving memorial:
Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life. “I hope you help those in need,” read one. “I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.”
As the father of two wonderful daughters, I can’t say that I would sleep less soundly if her killer was banished from this earth. Some of the usual arguments against execution don’t apply here. There is no doubt about Loughner’s guilt, or about the depravity of his actions. If I believed that executing him served some useful purpose, I would pull the lever myself.
But what good would be served through the ritual sacrifice of this sick and disturbed young man? How would that help us to create a safer, more worthy society? How would taking the life of a schizophrenic maniac heal his victims or console the survivors? I just don’t see it.
The statistical case for the death penalty is–to be polite–inconclusive. I’m ready to be convinced that we should execute specific perpetrators of calculated crimes: people who get paid to kill of federal witnesses, for example. I would consider the death penalty for specific terrorists, organizers of deadly conspiracies, perpetrators of genocide. Not for this. Not for simply meting out vengeance on a small person who committed a large crime.
President Obama suggested: “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.” I don’t believe in heaven. Still, these words brought me to tears because they conveyed the individual humanity of a precious little girl who is with us no more. They made me want to lash out, to kill the person who killed this little girl.
Yet that very image reminded me of a George Orwell essay I read in college. In “A Hanging,” George Orwell writes:
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide…. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.
In his madness, Jared Loughner seems not to comprehend the unspeakable wrongness of destroying human life. The rest of us can see more. President Obama noted that we “commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.”
The words doesn’t come easily to me here, but they are true. Sparing the life of this sick person who murdered a gentle, happy little girl is the most worthy thing we can do. There’s enough death and killing in the world.