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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Murdering Myths: The Story Behind the Death Penalty by Judith W. Kay (Polemics: Rowman and Littlefield) (Paperback) goes beyond the hype and statistics to examine Americans' deep-seated beliefs about crime and punishment. She argues that Americans share a counter-productive idea of justice--that punishment corrects bad behavior, suffering pays for wrong deeds, and victims' desire for revenge is natural and inevitable. Drawing on interviews with both victims and inmates, Kay shows how this belief harms perpetrators, victims, and society and calls for a new narrative that recognizes the humanity in all of us.

Excerpt: People are ingrained early with attitudes and feelings that support punitive projects known as revenge, retribution, and rectification through suffering (the three Rs). As with the three Rs expected of every schoolchild—reading, writing, and 'rithmetic—people come to master the complexities of blame and shame, merit and demerit, and winning through demeaning others. These three Rs, however, unlike education at its best, do not open doors to further insight, unleash the imagination, or stimulate creative thought. In­stead, the three Rs operate like unconditioned responses so that young peo­ple well before the age of majority, play out scripted roles with one another, repeating unworkable responses. Rather than providing an increased vocab­ulary to write new scripts, these three Rs limit people to worn-out apho­risms, the result of a story that's been told so many times that shorthand replaces logic. Revenge, retribution, and rectification keep producing math that results in more people imprisoned and dead, failing to prevent violence while declaring that the same failed formula works.

Many Americans tend to feel like victims and mindlessly connect vindica­tion with the ability to hurt someone of lower status. They withhold compas­sion from those who are thought to deserve their suffering. People are tempted to act out their painful feelings by mistreating others rather than byseeking the means to heal. These bad habits tempt them to mistake their au­thentic human power for the immoral power to inflict pain. Such habits also narrow full apprehension of others' humanness to a single focus on the worst thing the perpetrator has ever done.

Many Americans feel that if someone has wronged them, that person should be harmed or dropped from their universe, from their moral commu­nity of care and concern. One by one, they may exclude various scoundrels: the best friend who betrayed a confidence, the alcoholic father who was abu­sive, the friend who said something racist, or the worker who was irresponsi­ble and let a coworker take the heat. A victim lets her moral community become smaller, threatening to shrink to a narrow group of intimates.

Communities also seek to protect themselves by excluding or eliminating criminals. But such exclusion offers only short-term protection. In the long term, this protection is an illusion. Prisons have a harsh and degrading effect on people. Too often, ex-convicts are returned to the community in worse shape than they were in before their incarceration. Prisoners need more than punishment to help them make good. They need a new story, new virtues, and assistance in dismantling their vices.

Banishing wrongdoers from the community does not address the harm they wrought. It merely targets those people most vulnerable to acting out the script enforced by the dominant culture. Unless individuals have recovered from their mistreatment, they are susceptible to harming others. With a few dramatic exceptions, middle-class, well-educated people who lead "safe" lives usually never face a situation that provokes lethal anger or violence. But many others, in more challenging circumstances, daily confront situations that stab at their deepest hurts, and they lash out, irresponsibly and with grave conse­quences.

The story about the bad guys becomes coupled with at first unwilling, and later unthinking, participation in various punitive practices, which together put the practice of punishment beyond rational debate. These experiences leave otherwise courageous and intelligent bystanders with a lack of voice and a dimness of vision. These obstacles result in certain kinds of blind polarities, as sketched below.

Nonabolitionists speak as if the death penalty were civilization's last stand against the forces of relativism and moral turpitude. The prospect of abandon­ing Western society's professed pieties appears to court the demise of capital punishment—the last defense against evil. In contrast, abolitionists characterize capital punishment as an anachronism that persists in the United States long af­ter the rest of the civilized world has wisely moved forward. With either the end or the beginning of civilization hanging on its coattails, the death penalty ap­pears able to determine the future. No wonder so much seems at stake.

Two persistent distortions in vision seem to be made, one by liberals and another by conservatives. Liberals tend to see offenders as victims of bad en­vironments. Brutal victimization indeed is often the experience of murder­ers. Liberals, however, err in seeing the humanity of the offender without seeing the long-lasting effects of such brutalization. Liberals tend to under­play the murderer's resultant violent and dangerous habits, naively assuming that an improved environment will be sufficient for the murderer's rehabili­tation. Because liberals see the community as at least partly responsible for producing violent offenders, liberals tend to buy into the idea that offenders are "victims too." Liberals fail to see the culprit's potential intelligence and in­tegrity as well as his attachment to his vicious habits. They err by letting mur­derers get away with "Twinkie defenses," failing to hold dangerous people responsible for their crimes. Liberals, with their single focus, are ridiculed as "bleeding hearts" and "soft on crime." Liberals are accused of backing the early release of dangerous offenders, turning a blind eye to the pain of vic­tims and their families.

The second error is made by conservatives, who reduce the criminals to embodiments of the worst things they ever did; misdeeds become identity. In­stead of merely denouncing evil behavior, conservatives denounce certain people as essentially evil by underplaying the community's responsibility for infusing people with the same punitive, vengeful, and violent motives that drive the criminal justice system. Reluctant to name and denounce the dehu­manizing social experiences that produced a human with the disposition to ravage and kill, they blame individuals as if their difficulties sprang from nowhere. Conservatives are accused of being simplistic, labeling complex hu­mans as either purely good or evil.

Liberals and conservatives may appear to occupy opposite ends of a pole, but they actually share the same difficulty—distinguishing the human from his or her conditioning. Liberals see a limited picture of the person, not the vice; conservatives see the vice, not the person. Both share an inability to hold in view the two realities about perpetrators—that they are human beings with dangerous, debilitating, and nonintelligent habits. Thus both fail to appreci­ate humans' motivation to pursue the good and their vulnerability to be dis­rupted in that pursuit. For when the human is not permitted to recover from hurt or injury, she may want to injure in return. Only when genuine human needs are not met do people succumb to the narrative of the lie.

Such clouded vision results from enmeshment in a story and a way of be­ing before the age of words, which silences many before they can form inde­pendent thought and ensures complicity without ever asking for consent. It is that bad. Although the death penalty eventually may be discarded, the story, the practices, and the vices that sustain it will remain. Unless they are tackled directly.

Because Americans are so deeply acculturated by a dominant story, it is diffi­cult to think around it. Indeed, it is impossible to live completely outside it, because the entire culture and its institutions are so deeply entrenched in it. As social beings, we have no place entirely outside culture, even though indi­viduals can disentangle themselves by undoing their allegiance to conditioned ways of being. Even freed just a bit from the story's habits, people have done amazing things in creating new practices of justice.

Showing great resiliency, some murder victim families and ex-convicts tell a new story that lifts them out of a life of violence." Cut to the core of their being by their past and forced to deal with life's elementals, some work their way through their pain and come out the other side—aware of a new way of being and a new way of seeing, and having a new story to tell. As they seek to incorporate dreadful realities into their life stories, they also have to come to terms with the narrative that society offers them. They find it comes up short. As they seek to repair their hearts, lives, and relationships, they find that they need to tell a new story about how to respond to terrible wrongs. They chal­lenge Americans to write a new script about justice.

Brilliant minds and courageous hearts have led Americans forward in hu­mane directions. Whites no longer lynch African Americans at the rate of three per week and celebrate the deed by passing around souvenirs taken from the burned bodies. Vast numbers of lives are improved because this one des­picable practice ended. Yet practices of punishment—including the death penalty—in the United States partake of the same mind-sets and cultural practices that supported lynching. The techniques of execution may have changed, but the habits have not.

This book illumines how the narrative of the lie shapes murderers, families of homicide victims, and bystanders. It recommends intentional liberation from enmeshment in the story that so many have been willing to kill for, iden­tifying those practices that enable people to emerge from the wounds of the past, telling a new story about how they may act to correct injustices. As Schreiter says, "The struggle to find the way to interpret our story is frequently a gradual retelling of that story until it becomes a new story." Murder victims' families who oppose the death penalty tell a new story based on a better pic­ture of reality. Others do not. It is the difference between these two ways of seeing reality that this book addresses.

Americans face three tasks. The first is to discern those narratives that lib­erate from violence rather than ensure its repetition. The second task is to use liberatory narratives to heal from and transcend experiences with violence rather than getting caught in their grasp. The third is to live out of a new story and alternative practices of justice. The new story requires a commit­ment to refuse to pass on to others the hurts received. Needed are the expur­gation of old habits and the inculcation of virtue. It requires involvement from bystanders—lending their voices to the new story, with new plots, roles, and possibilities for action.

Undoing allegiance to the three Rs will take more than educating the pub­lic about the machinery of death or abolishing the death penalty. Thus, while this book is about punishment, it is not about the techniques of death, the mechanisms of selection, the machinery of systems. It is about a society that sings the same old tune, perpetuates the play of practices, and imposes habits on each new generation—brutally, if necessary—to ensure that painful penalty remains an obvious and fitting end for some.

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