The Farce of the Death Penalty

By Linebaugh, Peter | The Nation, August 14, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Farce of the Death Penalty


Linebaugh, Peter, The Nation


"Qui vive?" the sentinel shouted in the olden days to the stranger at the gate. "Vive le roi" was the reply or, as time went by, "Vive la liberte," or even later, "Vive la commune!" History moved on but the sentinel did not sleep, and, as our epoch changes, we too must at least ask, Who lives? even if we haven't settled on a name to express our hopes for the coming days.

Who lives, and who dies? It is a question as enduring as civilization and as contemporary as the debate over the death penalty. The connection is not gratuitous, as Newt Gingrich surely understood when, in drafting his blueprint for the future, the Contract With America, he pledged to "make the death penalty real." Doltish as he is, Gingrich is enough of a historian to have absorbed a central lesson of governance from the wellspring of Western civilization: the value of death in the maintenance of public order.

Tertullian, the African Christian of the second century, explained in his essay "Of the Public Shows" how in ancient Rome violent death was transformed into a way of life. As part of funeral rites, the Etruscans would sacrifice a few slaves to propitiate the spirit of a dead aristocrat. Their Roman conquerors borrowed this custom and expanded it as military education and character building, instituting games-to-the-death among the legions. Having learned in wartime to kill one another for the common good, during the Pax Romana they established the games as entertainment, war's grief assuaged and deflected by war's simulation. As Tertullian explained, "They found comfort for death in murder...."

Across the centuries we still have much to learn from the ancient fathers of our law, our statecraft, our military organization - not least how the ritual death of the few corresponds to the casual death of many.

California resumed the death penalty by gassing Robert Alton Harris in April of 1992. A week later, L.A. popped in a mega uprising. Sixty were killed. This was followed by the execution of a former coal miner in Virginia. A year later Bill Clinton, who had christened his presidential campaign with the execution of Rickey Ray Rector and his presidency with a bombing of Baghdad, sanctioned the gassing of women, men, boys and girls in the holocaust of Waco, Texas. Meanwhile, the official death penalties mounted: 1993 had the worst record since the reinstatement of the punishment in 1976.

Now Timothy McVeigh, trained by an empire to kill in foreign deserts, may have sought avenging comfort for death by bombing the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on the anniversary of Waco and on the day the white supremacist Richard Snell was executed in Arkansas. "Hail the victory," said Snell as last words, and warned the Governor, "Look over your shoulder." Hours later, after the Oklahoma bombing, the President's lictor, Janet Reno, hissed, "The death penalty is available, and we will seek it." She will be assisted by a D.A. who has already sent fifty-seven people to death row.

Thus the metronome of thanatocracy swings back and forth: Harris-L.A., Clinton-Rector, Waco-Reno, McVeigh-Oklahoma. It began even earlier, with MOVE, the anarchic black revolutionaries in Philadelphia whose struggle with the authorities is said to have culminated in the land and air assault that killed eleven people and incinerated sixty houses ten years ago but is hardly concluded, as Mumia Abu-Jamal, an early MOVE sympathizer, sits on Pennsylvania's death row, his execution scheduled for August 17. Tit for tat is the pattern.

In ancient Rome, Seneca the Younger reported of the gladiators, "And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: `A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!" There is the spirit of gallows humor in that; the spirit, too, of farce, which also originated in Roman times, as an interlude, a buffoonish mime of reality, between more serious dramas. Farce shares with the games an essence that Eric Bentley, the seminal modern critic of the form, expressed as "I'll murder you with my own bare hands. …

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