But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life. -Albert Camus, writer, philosopher, Nobel laureate (1913-1960)
Recently I heard about a bunch of WWII German POWs who had been incarcerated in a camp in the Arizona desert in 1943. A lot of them had been U-Boat sailors and wanted to get back to the war and continue sinking Allied ships. They feigned a great interest in volleyball and convinced their American guards to give them shovels so they could improve their playing surface. What they were really doing, though, was digging an elaborate escape tunnel. They even had a map showing a creek nearby that eventually emptied into the Colorado River. The plan was to drag their home-made collapsible rafts through the tunnel, get to the Colorado and then escape to Mexico to link up with Nazi agents. On the day of the great escape, they popped out at the daylight of the other end of the tunnel to find a dry drainage ditch instead of a creek. They didn’t take into account that the “creek” that was on the map was seasonal. As they pondered their mistake, one can only imagine that they revisited their plan in their heads and wondered why they didn’t have more doubts about its success.
Another recent radio program told about an Iranian medic in the war against Iraq back in the 80s. One horrific day he had to pull mangled Iraqi corpses out of a bunker. As he got deeper into the bunker he heard a low moan. Since Iraqis had been known to booby- trap corpses so that they exploded when moved, he understandably had great doubts about proceeding when he heard the moan again. But he went ahead and pulled a dead Iraqi off the pile and found a bloodied but still living soldier on the bottom. He managed to drag him outside and bandage him up. They both survived that carnage and became friends and were reunited outside Iraq years later. He overcame his doubts.
Last night after dinner, I realized what time it was and that Troy Davis was soon to be executed in Georgia. I read today that his last words from the gurney with the needle already in his arm were addressed to the victim’s family and his prison guards:
“I’d like to address the MacPhail family. Let you know, despite the situation you are in, I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother. I am innocent. The incident that happened that night is not my fault. I did not have a gun. All I can ask … is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight. For those about to take my life, God have mercy on your souls. And may God bless your souls.”
The idea of doubt suddenly took on a much more serious meaning which should make us all pause. One can doubt when such things happen if there really is some sense of God.
“There ain’t no Devil, only God when he’s drunk.”–Tom Waite
In such cases, we often hear of “justice being served,” whatever that means. I respect and honor the feelings of the victim’s family. And my heart is heavy for their loss. But I also doubt whether this man was guilty as charged. He’s gone now, so right or wrong, it no longer matters for him.
My cousin Mark, the father of four young daughters, was killed on the streets of Dayton, Ohio, in 1966 during the race riots that were exploding at the time across the country. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time and was White. It took my aunt many years to resolve her anger and get beyond her wishes for vengeance. Although the killer was never prosecuted and she never had to follow the anguish of the appeals process, the killing of her only son was with her the rest of her life. But my aunt eventually lost any desire for vindication, put her racism behind her, and turned her sorrow toward helping others–Black and White–in her small community.
She left her certitude behind and gained doubt as a replacement. She never looked back.