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The Culture of Capital Punishment

George Lipsitz, to a Forum Protesting the Planned Execution of Kevin Cooper (2/3/04)

It is a sad occasion that brings us together tonight as we meet to protest yet another state sponsored execution, another needless loss of human life. But our sadness can be tempered by bearing witness together, by engaging in deliberative talk and face to face decision making, by hearing from each other the things we will never hear from the corporate media.

We have to come here tonight to be reminded that most of the nations in the world have outlawed the death penalty because they consider it savage, barbaric, and a punishment that undermines respect for the law. We need to come here and to learn from each other that most of the world's religious leaders oppose the death penalty precisely because of – not in spite of – the fact that they seek to teach that murder is wrong.

The calculated cruelty of the corporate media and the opportunistic prattle of politicians will not tell us that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder, that the murderers of whites are 400 times more likely to get the death penalty than murderers of Blacks, that the state of Missouri shows pornographic movies to the general prison population on the night that an execution takes place, that on the eve of the first woman's execution in North Carolina inmates were encouraged by the warden to masturbate, that one of the most important organizations advocating abolition of the death penalty is Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, a group whose arguments against vengeance and retribution get drowned out by the cruel encouragement that politicians and the media give to families of murder victims that one more murder will assuage the pain of their loss and put their minds at rest.

We will not hear outside this room that in the 1992 case of Keeny vs. Tamayo-Reyuer and the 1993 case of Hererra vs. Collins the Supreme Court declared with what Peter Linebaugh calls the "neurotic hateur of Chief Justice Rehnquist and the lurid snarl of Justice Scalia" that innocence of the crime committed is not an adequate reason to stop an execution if the defendant received a trial that did not violate the Constitution.

Most grievously, by transforming debate about the impending execution of Kevin Cooper into a referendum on whether murder is a bad thing instead of looking into the doubts in the minds of the jurors who convicted him, the equal grief felt by the families of the vast majority of murder victims whose perpetrators do not receive the death penalty, and consideration of the punishments that could be meted out instead of death, contemporary journalistic and political discussions of the Kevin Cooper case insulate this one execution from the broader cultural and political matrix in which it takes place.

The celebratory vengeance demanded by the self-proclaimed defenders of law and order who want the state to murder Kevin Cooper leave us facing the prospect of not only an execution, but one conducted without solemnity, without sadness, without sorrow.

The proposed execution of Kevin Cooper takes place at a time when the most significant and most powerful institutions in our society revolve around sensational, spectacular, and sadistic representations of real deaths, from the celebration of "smart bombs" by not so smart politicians, from the sadism in search of a story that propels the demonization and incarceration of inner city youths to the recreational hate that permeates popular entertainment and campus humor magazines. Our leaders seek to infuse by fear what they cannot inspire by faith. Unable to admit honestly how divided we are by inequalities and injustices, they seek instead to provide the illusion of unity promoted by performances of power and public displays of force. They seek to make the lust of the spectator more important than the responsibilities of citizens. They alienate us from one another by substituting the pleasures of calculated cruelty for the satisfactions of social membership. They make up in self-righteous rage what they lack in conviction and purpose.

In our age of inequality and exploitation, plutocracy and plunder, capital punishment functions as a node in a network of our collective punishment by capital – a display of supreme power by the state against defenseless victims in order to stun us into silence through shock and awe

People who pretend that it is "tyranny" for the state to tax the sale of luxury automobiles in order to raise revenues to for education, health care, and environmental protection, now tell us that same State should have the power to take a human life. We're told that the State should execute convicted criminals, should go to war or go to Mars (the war planet), but refuse to feed the hungry, house the homeless, or help the disabled. The State that they do not trust to give children vaccinations against disease or protect the quality of our air and water is nonetheless being trusted with the ultimate decisions of life and death in the cases of impoverished defendants who come to court without adequate legal representation and face the death penalty because they lack the private resources that other defendants enjoy.

More than a half century ago, facing another version of the same dedication to death that propels the projects of the powerful in our society, Walter Benjamin noted that human self-alienation had reached the point where people can now experience their own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. We're here tonight to refuse that "pleasure" and to embrace the painfully difficult work of moving society along another course.

We seek to save the life of Kevin Cooper, but we also seek to augment and enhance the lives of his executioners by saving them from the course on which they are embarked.

In a society suffused with hate, hurt, and fear, the death penalty comes to take on a kind of normative logic. People who have been hurt want to hurt others, people filled with fear wish to make others fearful. But we're not going to hurt or fear. We're not going to hate, we're going to educate, and communicate, and litigate, and agitate.

The state intends to execute Kevin Cooper at one minute after midnight on February 10. That midnight is part of an overdetermined pattern. It is also midnight today in the economic order, the psychological order, and the moral order. But Dr. King used to remind us that our ancestors knew that the darkest hour of our midnight can also be the first moment of our victory, that we stand in this life at midnight, but always on the verge of a new dawn.


Monterey Bay Educators Against War
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