Politics & Policy

The Moral Chasm

Tookie Williams's execution reveals the gulf between Left and Right.

A headline on page A37 in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times reads: “Large Funeral Planned for Williams, Friend Says.” The brief story that follows tells of preparations being made by Stanley “Tookie” Williams’s longtime friend and collaborator Barbara Becnel to receive the executed man’s body and stage a large public funeral in Los Angeles. The ceremony, the story says, will be “on a scale of the funeral for Rosa Parks.”

So, in the eyes of Barbara Becnel (and, apparently, many others), a man who murdered four helpless people during the commission of two robberies, and who is sometimes credited with founding a street gang responsible for thousands of additional murders, is deserving of no less a tribute than that given to a pioneer of the civil-rights movement. This is what passes for enlightened thinking on the fringes of the American Left, which for years has lionized such homicidal thugs as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Yasser Arafat, and which now very noisily places Tookie Williams, like convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal before him, in this pantheon of heroes. How long will it be before someone proposes to name an elementary school after him?

I watched and listened to the television and radio coverage of Williams’s execution Monday night and Tuesday morning, not to take any glee in the man’s death but rather to see that justice, at long last, had been done. Though I support capital punishment and encouraged Governor Schwarzenegger to deny Williams’s petition for clemency, I admit I was troubled by the broadcast descriptions of the condemned man’s final hours. Only the truly heartless can be unmoved by the thought of a man, no matter how heinous his crimes, being led to the death chamber and killed.

I acknowledge my qualms about capital punishment even as I support it, and I can understand and engage in dialogue with those whose religious or moral convictions lead them to an opposite conclusion. My own wife is one such person. Like me, she is a Catholic, and she believes that all human life is sacred and can only be extinguished at the time of God’s choosing. I, on the other hand, hew to the Old Testament standard that holds some crimes to be so grievous as to demand the perpetrator pay with his own life. (The instruction that murderers should be put to death is the only law that appears in all five books of the Torah.)

But while my wife and I may disagree on the morality of capital punishment, we are equally baffled by those death-penalty opponents who would go to the absurd extremes seen in the recent effort to spare as despicable a man as Tookie Williams. Some of Williams’s supporters, against all evidence and common sense, declared him innocent. Others said that even if guilty he was deserving of clemency for having been “redeemed,” the evidence of which was his authorship of a series of children’s books that almost no one read and whose impact was negligible at best.

Typical of Williams’s supporters was the ubiquitous Jesse Jackson, who on Tuesday morning stood vigil with a thousand or so other protesters outside the gates of San Quentin Prison. Tellingly, Jackson was unable to name even one of Williams’s four victims when asked to do so by a Los Angeles talk-radio host.

It’s most often difficult to find anyone more shameless that Jesse Jackson, but Barbara Becnel’s hysterics at the prison made Jackson seem like a piker by comparison. She and two other Williams supporters were among the witnesses to the execution, and when Williams was declared dead, the three of them shouted in unison, “The state of California just killed an innocent man.” She then appeared before the crowd outside the prison and described what she had seen. “[Williams] suffered,” she said. “He was writhing, lifting his head up and fussing” at the prison staff for taking so long. “It was horrible. To me, it was torture. It took 35 minutes to kill him.”

Perhaps Miss Becnel would have preferred to see Williams dispatched more quickly and efficiently, say, with a shotgun blast or two, the method he himself employed in slaughtering his four victims.

The moral chasm between the opposing sides in the death penalty debate was perhaps best displayed on Monday’s Larry King Show, which featured defense attorney Mark Geragos, retired deputy D.A. Robert Martin (who prosecuted Williams), and syndicated radio host Dennis Prager. Also appearing were death-penalty opponents Mike Farrell and Sister Helen Prejean, who was made famous when she was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the film Dead Man Walking.

Prager, a practicing Jew, a biblical scholar, and as decent and moral a man as one can hope to meet, expounded the traditional case for capital punishment, i.e. that crimes such as those committed by Tookie Williams cry out for the ultimate punishment, that for Williams to keep his life after taking the lives of four defenseless people is an affront to justice. Incredibly, both Geragos and Farrell proceeded completely to mischaracterize Prager’s statement as to mean that anyone who takes another’s life should be executed. I’ll give Geragos and Farrell the benefit of the doubt in saying they may have misunderstood Prager during what was a heated exchange, but the cynic might be forgiven for suspecting they deliberately distorted his words so as to portray him as a madman.

“[Y]ou sit there and lick your lips about the death of a human being,” Farrell shouted at Prager, “you disgust me.” “Exactly right,” added Geragos.

But the signal moment in the program, the moment that distilled the entire debate, came in a brief exchange between Prager and Sister Prejean. Was it immoral, Prager asked her, for Israel to execute Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust? Prejean hemmed and hawed, she bobbed and weaved, but she could not bring herself to endorse the execution of a man with the blood of millions on his hands.

There was another headline in Wednesday’s L.A. Times, this one buried in the second section: “Boys, 14 and 17, Killed in Separate Gang Shootings.” So the debate will continue, but the lines cannot be more clearly drawn.

Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.


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