To Execute Capital Punishment: The Mortification and Scapegoating of Illinois Governor George Ryan

By Moore, Mark P. | Western Journal of Communication, October 2006 | Go to article overview

To Execute Capital Punishment: The Mortification and Scapegoating of Illinois Governor George Ryan


Moore, Mark P., Western Journal of Communication


Governor George Ryan served most of his 35 years in Illinois state politics as a firm believer in the death penalty and the criminal justice system that enforced it. However, after 2 years in the gubernatorial office, he changed his views dramatically, and on January 11, 2003, with just 2 days left in his term as governor, he commuted all Illinois death sentences to prison terms of life or less, by far the largest state clearing of death row in history (Wilgoren, 2003b). [1] Ryan's critics, and he had many, viewed the commutation as an effort to divert attention from a corruption scandal that evolved during his term of office and eventually brought his political career to an end. Curiously, Ryan imposed the moratorium on executions on January 31, 2000, shortly after Dean Bauer, his former inspector general in the secretary of state's office, was indicted for covering up politically sensitive investigations. [2] While the corruption scandal overshadowed Ryan's term as governor, his rhetorical conversion against the death penalty in general and his announcement of commuting death row sentences in particular can be viewed symbolically both as a mortification of capital punishment, the denial or negation of that which he once condoned and practiced, and as an act of factional scapegoating that shifted blame to the criminal justice system.

This essay examines Illinois Governor Ryan's discourse on his death penalty moratorium and commutation of death sentences, with specific focus on his statement in the 2002 Report on the Illinois Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment and his commutation announcement on January 11, 2003. These two addresses are considered to be key symbolic acts of mortification and factional scapegoating in which Ryan denied (negated) the practice of capital punishment in the justice system by first denying or negating the practice of it himself. In Kenneth Burke's theory of dramatism, mortification is a symbolic attempt to purify or atone for pollution or guilt through confession or self-sacrifice for the sake of forgiveness. Accordingly, Ryan first admitted that he supported capital punishment throughout most of his life and political career but then worked for redemption. Punishing the inner victim in this way allowed Ryan to negate or slay the act of capital punishment within himself. After doing so, he then confronted the outer or social victim in the legal justice system that served as the source of injustice and disorder. It is through this process, whereby Ryan first acted inwardly to discipline a self that threatened order within the self and then to discipline and reject the collective form of punishment that threatened order within society as a whole, that Ryan combined mortification and scapegoating to confront the death penalty and the judicial system that carries it out.

In addition to viewing the scapegoat process as a shift or transference of blame to others in general, Burke (1984a) also discussed the possibility of two more specific types of scapegoating, the universal and the factional (pp. 188-189). On the one hand, an act of universal scapegoating is essentially associative, although it also includes dissociation. That is, audiences identify with and pity the victim, because the victim includes everyone. However, they do not identify with the victim's punishment, because it produces terror. On the other hand, factional scapegoating only creates dissociation, for it blames some, not all. Factional scapegoating divides individuals into camps. Also, if an act of mortification accompanies scapegoating, the scapegoating would typically be universal in nature, as in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in which Christ willingly died on the cross while taking on the sins or burdens of all. This is an example of victimage that includes both mortification and universal scapegoating, since it combines self-sacrifice with a sacrifice for everyone. Though examples of victimage that include mortification and universal scapegoating are relatively rare, cases of mortification and factional scapegoating are even more so. …

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