Monday, November 20, 2006

Fuzzy Memory and the death penalty

Years ago, I read a short citation about judicial decisions concerning the death penalty. It appeared an American history textbook – those ‘review questions’ that were always printed at the end of each chapter, to see if you were paying attention when you read your homework. It included a quote from a Supreme Court justice. I filed the quote away, and occasionally it rises out of my memory banks when I read about the death penalty. The quote was something like, “The death penalty is our way of saying to someone, you messed up your life here, go take your chances elsewhere.”

The Justice’s context, supposedly, was that such a statement was empty. The death penalty was not a human or humane way to treat another individual, no matter how heinous the crime.

I decided to search for that quote, and typed variations into the Google search bar. Either my memory, or that textbook, was fuzzier than I expected. Probably both.

The case was Furman v Georgia, the seminal 1972 case in which the Supreme Court determined that the death penalty was cruel and inhuman punishment and was contrary to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Justice William Brennan, in his concurring opinion, quoted a line from an 1864 tract written in favor of the death penalty, in which that phrase “take your chance elsewhere” was used. Judge Brennan did not use the phrase directly to support his own argument.

But much of his written opinion is brilliant, nonetheless. The citation is from the Cornell University web site of US Supreme Court decisions ( ):

Death is truly an awesome punishment. The calculated killing of a human being by the State involves, by its very nature, a denial of the executed person's humanity. The contrast with the plight of a person punished by imprisonment is evident. An individual in prison does not lose "the right to have rights." A prisoner retains, for example, the constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion, to be free of cruel and unusual punishments, and to treatment as a "person" for purposes of due process of law and the equal protection of the laws. A prisoner remains a member of the human family. Moreover, he retains the right of access to the courts. His punishment is not irrevocable. Apart from the common charge, grounded upon the recognition of human fallibility, that the punishment of death must inevitably be inflicted upon innocent men, we know that death has been the lot of men whose convictions were unconstitutionally secured in view of later, retroactively applied, holdings of this Court. The punishment itself may have been unconstitutionally inflicted, see Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), yet the finality of death precludes relief. An executed person has indeed "lost the right to have rights." As one 19th century proponent of punishing criminals by death declared,

When a man is hung, there is an end of our relations with him. His execution is a way of saying, "You are not fit for this world, take your chance elsewhere."
[n39] [p291]

39. Stephen, Capital Punishments, 69 Fraser's Magazine 753, 763 (1864).

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Poetry Thursday, Late

November in the Park

Oak leaves are the last to fall.

They skitter up and down the sidewalk,

clutter the dormant fountains,

fly updrafts past dull statues

that reflect pale sunlight filtered through thin clouds;

they climb the roof to a bell tower

streaked with green patina across once-shining copper clothing.

The maples and birch and ash long ago dropped their color,

their leaves swept away,

leaving the field to these boorish brown intruders.

The oak stays loaded with more volleys,

ready to drop another round that gets underfoot.

Soon the white carpet will arrive

and bury these drab epilogues to autumn.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Entitled to Stuff

A friend of mine is in her first year of teaching English at a liberal arts college. She is only one year removed from finishing her doctorate, and there is very little age gap between her and her students. I asked her how her first year is going, and what one thing about her classes has surprised her the most. She replied that she is taken aback by the sense of entitlement that most college students have – this notion that the teacher, the school, and society in general should be giving them their kudos and guaranteeing their success.

The same day that we had this conversation, I attended a meeting of my college alumni board. We heard a presentation from our Director of Admissions, and he discussed the challenges that the college faced in communicating with today’s prospective college students. Prominent on the list of challenges in his powerpoint: students’ sense of entitlement.

What have we wrought? I am part of the boomer generation that has raised these kids. It makes me wonder whether we have been overly-generous with our children while they lived under our umbrella.

These issues came to mind again when I read an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s collection of essays, The Way of Ignorance. Berry writes of our desire for more and more stuff:

"[we] seem to be living now with the single expectation that there should and will always be more of everything, including 'life expectancy.' This insatiable desire for more is the result of an overwhelming sense of incompleteness, which is the result of the insatiable desire for more. This is the wheel of death.”

Somehow, many of us believe we need more and more things. Worse, we think we deserve them. But we still end up cleaning out our parents’ homes when they move on – whether to a smaller living quarters or to the final calling – and most of this stuff ends up on a dumpster.

Our memories, our relationships, are much stronger than all our physical possessions. We should teach our children before we need our own dumpsters.