Politics & Policy

Listen to Yourselves!

Tookie Williams & radical chic.

“The state of California just killed an innocent man,” shouted Stanley Tookie Williams’s followers after his execution. His supporters clearly want his death to be a “teaching moment” for the United States. And to this end, Williams is being made a martyr.

Of course, the canonization process got started long ago, in schools, in the press and even on the screen. Williams’s Nobel Prize nominations were relentlessly touted as if they were the equivalent of the silver medal in the humanitarian Olympics, when in fact it is a literally meaningless distinction easily conferred by almost any sympathetic academic, including some who decent people would not want to be admired by. His supposedly world-changing books had worse-than-dismal sales, though that will surely change now.

The film Redemption, starring Jamie Foxx, was little more than a spiritualized hagiography in which the murders that landed Williams on death row are glossed over so as to avoid confusing the viewer with the emotionally distracting fact that Williams executed four unarmed people with a shotgun. Williams’s apostles prefer to describe his past as “poor choices,” a nicely sanitized euphemism everyone can relate to, as if Williams was put to death for choosing to go to San Francisco State instead of UCLA.

Meanwhile, the supposed evil of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to uphold 25 years of court decisions (often by very liberal courts, including the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals), the law of the state, and the expressed desires of his constituents is made into a crime of horrific inhumanity and malevolence.

As one protester on CNN declared: “Now we are here today because we understand this racist system wants to kill Stan Tookie Williams because of the example he sets to young people across this country.”

Ah, yes, it was Tookie’s anti-gang “message” that put him in the death chamber, not his multiple murders. After all, the white power structure cannot abide gangsters putting out nonviolent children’s books.

Many Americans hear this sort of thing and ask, “Who believes this garbage?”

So here is what I think could be the foundation of a true teaching moment for the anti-death-penalty community. One of the main reasons its sermons don’t resonate beyond the choir isn’t that Americans are consumed with racist bloodlust or yearnings for vengeance. It isn’t even because all death-penalty supporters are unshakably convinced of the rightness of their position. It’s because the anti-capital-punishment crowd has lost all credibility.

I’m sure that from within the movement, saying whatever it takes to save a life seems like a moral obligation–hence the last-minute appeals, the dubiously miraculous discovery of exonerating witnesses, and the rest. But from outside the fishbowl, it just reinforces the impression that nothing they say can be taken at face value.

It’s fine if Bianca Jagger or Mike Farrell wants to claim that Williams was redeemed, even though he refused to admit his crimes. But a nun should know better. Sister Helen Prejean told NPR that Williams didn’t need to confess his sin to find redemption. “One way to show remorse is just say, ‘I am so sorry I killed those people.’ Another way to show remorse is with your life, what you do with your life. And look what he’s done with his.” That’s good p.r. but bad theology.

Morality isn’t the only thing that gets spun. Death-penalty opponents–with the help of a sympathetic media–hone their statistical legerdemain, suggesting that everyone who’s gotten off death row in recent years was innocent, when in fact many just had flawed trials.

And, of course, there’s all the America bashing from a crowd that can cheer Yasser Arafat’s Peace Prize but also can call Schwarzenegger a murderer with a straight face. Indeed, it’s difficult not to conclude that, for many, the Tookies are merely convenient props to put the United States on trial. And, as we all know, props aren’t responsible for their actions.

I find it revealing that a significant number of conservatives I know (and even work with) either oppose the death penalty on moral grounds or are inclined to. But they are consistently put off by the radical chic crowd, which has grown deceitful, narcissistic, and married to agendas no conservative would ever sign on to.

It would be nice if the most vocal opponents of the death penalty pondered that during this teaching moment. But they won’t, because they think they’ve got nothing left to learn.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services

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