State as Executioner: Rick Perry Did Not Invent the Death Penalty

Not long after I had moved to Greece, I went to see an American film with some friends of mine. It told the story of an intelligent and ambitious small-town lawyer, and in one side-story that was surprisingly peripheral to the main plot, he went to visit a death row inmate. I noticed that this was the one scene where the Greek subtitles didn’t always appear when the actors spoke their lines and sometimes never appeared at all.

When we went out afterwards to discuss the film, my friends asked me pointedly about that scene. “How did he know that man was going to die?” they wondered. I tried to explain that the man was awaiting execution, but I couldn’t figure out how to say it. I realized that I didn’t know the word for “death penalty”; I had never heard that word in Greece.

Here is the remarkable thing. I could not make my Greek friends believe that there was a death penalty in the United States. They persisted in the belief that it must have been a fiction created for the purposes of the film. No, I insisted, most states in our union (35 out of 50) continue to administer the ultimate penalty, notably all the states that constituted the Old Confederacy. They still didn’t believe it. The whole thing was just unthinkable in Europe. And they thought of the United States as a cultural extension of Europe… which it most decidedly is not, in terms of religion and culture. When they finally realized that the man in question was on death row, and that he had been placed there by a jury of his peers, and that such a penalty was a reality in the U.S. (thanatike poine is the term, I finally learned), then the film became far deeper and far more significant to them.

Dark Night of a Citizen’s Soul

It was fascinating to see our country, if just for a moment, through other eyes. To be sure, some of the most disturbing rants and chants that have been unleashed by Tea Party rhetoric and Republican electoral politics (often indistinguishable) have left me wondering at times just what kind of country I am living in.

Any serious supporter of the death penalty knows that it involves the most sobering allocation of state power, and that the evening (executions take place almost always at night) when the state puts one of its own citizens to death is a long night of eerie moral consequence. It is not a time for shouting and celebration. It is a time for the most mournful sense of citizenship.

It would be wrong to think that it is only Texas Governor Rick Perry’s boasting over his state’s punitive body count in a recent Republican debate that has put the death penalty back in the news (Texas led the nation with 167 executions from 1976-1998 and still leads with an incredible 234 since Perry became governor in 2000). Not at all. It is only our collective racial amnesia and apparent moral callousness where death is concerned that can make it seem this way.

Americans engage in fairly regular, if periodic, questioning of the relative justice of this most absolute of judicial penalties. It is a debate in which religious and cultural values are intertwined in a way that makes them inextricable.

Two cases, one in Texas and one in Georgia, have really put the death penalty back in the news. In Texas, the US Supreme Court just last week granted a stay of execution for a man who had already taken his last meal (fried chicken and catfish) despite Governor Perry’s repeated statements of his confidence in justice as administered by the State of Texas. The Supreme Court took a slightly different view of Texas justice, and the reason has everything to do with the issue that is intimately bound up in the long history of the death penalty in America: race.

In the second, sentencing phase of Duane Buck’s original trial, the prosecutor mentioned a statistical study suggesting that young black felons were far more likely to be violent; implying that this convicted black murderer should therefore be executed to avoid his almost inevitable slide into greater violence. Naming race so explicitly appears to be out of bounds, even and especially in the face of such boundless state power to punish and kill.

In the Georgia case, race plays a subtler role. Troy Davis was arrested and accused in the killing of a Savannah police officer in 1989; he was placed on death row in 1991. The main evidence marshaled against him in the absence of a murder weapon and other forensic evidence, was the testimony of nine persons who confirmed Davis’ guilt. Seven of the nine who identified Davis as the killer have since officially recanted and declared their belief in his innocence; one even suggested that a personal relative was the real killer. The first witness to identify Davis as the killer had himself been a suspect in the murder. Yet Davis is scheduled to die in Atlanta on September 21, pending the results of a hearing that is being held as this piece goes to press, amid considerable public outcry.

A Country Without History?

My Greek friends’ incredulity about the face of judicial killing in the United States was based primarily on history. Greece languished under a military junta in the Cold War years and suffered all the totalitarian grotesqueries and social trauma we know as the plight of “the disappeared.” This was after an almost theatrically brutal German occupation in the Second World War (1 million died of famine in the first winter, countless more in reprisal killings and mass destructions in 1943-1944), and an even more toxic civil war that lasted from 1946 to 1949. Greeks know what the excessive deployment of state power looks like, and with their long historical memory, they deem it unthinkable that a modern state with such a violent history would arm itself with this penalty. They know what can happen when the state takes up the somber task of killing its own citizens.

The United States has developed the unsettling habit of speaking about itself as a young country, a country without a history. The idea is usually that America is a country of the future, with a culture uniquely well-suited to innovation and reinventing itself anew with each generation. But this same idea has all too often served to convince US citizens that our history does not matter and does not need to be studied because it is not relevant to current events.

The history of this country contains significant, and multiple, chapters where race-based violence led to the use of state-sanctioned killing as a way to terrorize US citizens. The result is a history that can rival Greece’s for blood and horror. In the eyes of my Greek friends, any nation with our history of plantation slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, lynchings, and Klan-sponsored terror would be ill-advised and morally deaf were it to grant the power of killing to the state, save in time of war.

Those who shout often do not wish to hear. The shout is an attempt to drown out dissent. But in the context of ongoing debates about the death penalty in America, the shouting also serves to erase any sense of our shared history as relevant to our moral deliberations. Pre-convention presidential debates will not provide a forum for this important discussion to take place.