We’re all accomplices to murder

By John R. Stiles

My native state is currently in the throws of bitter recriminations, as the deeply entrenched sides in the death-penalty debate have it out over former Gov. George Ryan’s blanket commutation of 160-plus death sentences last month.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those who believe the one-term governor had any real altruistic motives in his actions, when in one fell swoop he effectively brought Illinois’ capital punishment process to a halt by commuting all of the state’s death sentences to life in prison. In fact I am of that school of thought that believes his grandiose moratorium three years back was little more than a device of smoke and mirrors than any real twinge and/or change of conscience on his part. Before all this is over, Ryan, who left office under a major cloud of his own making, may find himself desperately in need of some of those same executive powers he is now being damned for invoking. Come to think of it, the former secretary of state/legislator may have simply wanted to assure himself of a few friends when he himself winds up among the state’s general prison population.

I also am of the opinion that while "Bad things do happen to good people," it is more than possible that "Bad people can do good things," regardless of their motivation, be it a sudden cold-sweat epiphany or a two-bit political hack trying to curry enough cheap favor in an attempt to keep his total disrespect of the public trust from view. And perhaps the greatest good served by the former governor might well have been his breaking the age-old debate on the topic down to its most common denominator.

Never has it been more clear that those who favor capital punishment are motivated almost entirely by pure, unadulterated vengeance. It is a gut-wrenching and emotional argument that is aimed at the lone accomplishment of killing another human being, no more and no less. The death-row inmate is reduced to something other than human, someone who is neither worthy of nor fit for life itself. It is, from the voices now crying out for Ryan’s head in recent weeks, the clearly stated wish of these people to bring about the cold, calculated, premeditated death of those so sentenced, which is, by any other standard I know of, considered murder.

The difference being that this murder is carried out in the collective names of all in the society.

And ironically enough, many of those so inclined to this state-sanctioned murder will also insist that when you reduce the age of the intended victim, say to a few weeks or months prior to birth, that is another, and some would say, worse crime. Thus it’s pro-life at one end of the human cycle and simply justice at the other.

The prosecuting attorneys of Illinois and the seeming masses of state citizenry demanding their public entertainment, have thrust the proverbial thumbs down in the Coliseum of public opinion and now nothing short of the blood of these 160-plus individuals and perhaps Ryan’s scalp will suffice. But is it right to call this justice? And should the concept of justice be tied to something so obviously base as revenge? While it is indeed true that many — if not most — of those who previously resided on death row in Illinois committed the most heinous of crimes, I cannot help feeling a deep dull ache in the pit of my stomach over the whole process.

Just how does the state’s act keep from continuing the vicious cycle of violence entered into by these guilty souls? Lacking a coherent answer to that inquiry I am still left with one even more insurmountable question of conscience.

Can someone, anyone, please explain to me what the difference is between my going along with the legal vengeance my society exacts and the acts of murder which I am supposed to believe demand these executions? And don’t tell me that by killing these slimeballs I’m saving the public treasury upwards of $50,000 a year in their upkeep behind bars. That too is anything but a high-minded shelf to place a justice system upon. Regardless of the fact that they are admittedly the world’s worst individuals, what do we really accomplish by killing them? Because knowing that I’m bolstering the state’s coffers by sending these dregs to eternity does not ease my throbbing conscience.

What do we indeed teach by this act, other than murder is a crime expunged by nothing short of more murder?

And where then does it end?

Dead is dead, regardless of the method or the person and/or institution dispensing it. And any mistakes, and we all know there have been many, are firstly impossible to correct and secondly should be filed into which category of criminal act which we, the citizenry, are an accomplice to?