From the Archives
(March 2005) My friend Petra got mugged leaving work Wednesday night. A man rushed her as she walked to her car, grabbed her purse, and began punching her in the head.
Petra is a small woman with scant upper-body strength. She’s also an actor who knows how to project, and so she screamed ... and tried to run away ... and pushed him off of her ... and pounded on her office door ... and screamed some more ... and finally managed to break free and run.
She eventually made it back inside her office, but her jaw is broken, one eye is swollen shut, her forehead has goose-eggs all over it, and a shoulder is scraped and badly bruised.
Her husband Lee, a lawyer, said he can hardly bear the thought of one of his colleagues defending his wife’s attacker. He wants to ask that the man’s lawyer be appointed from another district.
If they find her attacker, that is.
Petra counsels addicts and is fairly certain that her attacker is a client in her building.
On Thursday, a bunch of us creative types met Lee and Petra at a pub where theater types hang out. We shared some vino, celebrated her escape, and offered support as best we could to someone who is trying to adjust to living in a different world.
Petra said she went into counseling because she wanted to make a difference in the world but, these days, she just feels jaded. Most of her clients never escape their addictions and their children grow up just as damaged as they are, to mostly repeat their parents’ lives.
She works grueling hours on a state employee’s salary and cares enough to stay late—which, frankly, she said, just leaves her vulnerable to attack.
She has resigned herself to the fact that she will probably not make a difference in most of her clients’ lives.
Dennis, who works with Petra, once opposed the death penalty in all cases. But then he met a boy who pounded a claw hammer into an eighty-year-old woman’s skull just so he could show off her Cadillac to his pals.
He's met too many people just like that boy—children with pop someone for a joyride or fifty cents—and so has come to doubt some people’s humanity (although he does recognize that their world may not provide the possibility of their humanity).
Now, if the evidence is overwhelming and the murderer is found guilty by a true jury of his or her peers, then Dennis believes that we ought to just go ahead and give the foreperson a gun and get it over with—save us and the criminal from himself.
(Wonder what he’ll do with the fact that, yesterday, the US Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for minors?)
I realized some time ago that I am the only one among my immediate circle of friends who cannot say with absolute conviction that I am always opposed to the death penalty.
I struggle with this issue. Sure, I understand that our justice system is blatantly racist, that innocent people sit on death row and that some of them will be executed not because they’re guilty but because they were born poor and could not afford decent representation.
I know that guilty people who can afford good representation can get away with murder because the hoards of people working on their cases are able to devote the energy required to find the inevitable technicality that spells freedom.
And I know that plenty of people are in jail because they grew up angry at a world they have every right to be angry at and then, not surprisingly, became the embodiment of that Audre Lorde poem about the disaffected teenager who becomes the ticking time bomb that will come due.
I know that, in the twenty-first century, there is money to be made from privatizing prisons and locking up whole segments of the population, and that this despicable form of social control is allowed to happen because, as a society, we have decided that some among us are expendable.
I know that plenty of businesspeople are happy to perpetuate this system because it allows them to rake in those privatization dollars. And everyone knows our rehab programs are a joke.
But here’s my problem with being 100 percent opposed to the death penalty: I have listened to cassette tapes of women being tortured to death and have stared into the eyes of the man who tortured them—a man who was, incidentally, wearing a Mork and Mindy T-shirt; someone who, in another circumstance, might be the guy behind you or me at the isolated all-night gas station. I also observed one of his victims' autopsies.
This man had already served a seven-year sentence for cutting a woman’s nipples off with a butcher knife when he kidnapped the woman whose autopsy I observed.
He raped and tortured and abused this woman over the course of several hours, then left her body in a field for wild dogs to eat.
This animal was fascinated with pain—which I suppose explains why he chose to tape-record her pleas and screams and sobs and gasps as he cut off her digits one knuckle at a time before skinning her alive. That was apparently not enough pain for him though, so he proceeded to pour salt onto her newly exposed skin and recorded her response as she lay there gasping and howling and bleeding to death in the dirt.
Later, he replayed those tapes, remembering.
I recognized his eyes the moment they caught my own. They’re the same eyes I saw when I visited my mother in the violent wards of mental hospitals. Goat eyes. One-dimensional eyes. Gone flat.
Those eyes scare the living shit out of me—especially when I see them on people walking freely down the street.
Some people on the violent wards are obsessed with their excrement—hurl it against the walls or fingerpaint with it. They bang their heads into the iron bars until they’re put into straitjackets, then bark and howl and reach through the bars for you as you walk by.
And, sadly, in some cases, whatever it is that makes most of us compassionate empathetic human beings is just permanently gone.
Maybe their violence is an outward projection of their own self-hatred or the hate their parents or the world projected onto them. Maybe they inherited the worst of both parents. Maybe they saw too much violence. Or maybe people were just too mean to them. Or maybe (to paraphrase a country song) they were just born bad.
And maybe medicine is never going to help.
Whatever the cause, some of us will always lack connection and will, instead, embody an unquenchable will to violence. And, if someone is unfortunate enough to encounter this person at an inopportune time, then she or he will become this person’s next victim.
The first thing colonists did when they settled a new place was build a church and a jail. They recognized how fragile communities are, the necessity of creating institutions that sustain and protect our fragile human connections. They recognized that some actions are so threatening to our connections that the people who commit these acts must be separated from others in order to protect the whole.
I read seventeenth-century English literature because I believe that we are at a similar cultural juncture. And I'm a poet who is prone to think in symbols and microcosms.
I imagine our country as a microcosm, a single colony of disparate but interconnected individuals existing in a fragile and destructible world where the violent results of unquenchable rage can damage and eventually un-tune the whole friggin’ spheres.
That's the Holocaust. That's Revelations.
My objection to the total elimination of the death penalty has nothing to do with revenge or the cost-to-profit ratio of the appeals process versus permanent incarceration, or the quest to understand what brain or hormonal or emotional abnormality destroys the human component of the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world.
Instead, I worry about the potential Machiavelli or Hitler in the rest of us. I worry that the risk a torturer’s potential escape poses to our society, the potential havoc he can wreak on our fragile connections, on our faith, is too great a threat for us to allow for that possibility.