The Cold Light of Death

Last night, in the nation which gave humanity the power of flight and scattered the pall of loneliness from the night sky with a single act of cosmic audacity, a woman was led along a silent corridor, bodily restrained, and slowly, publicly deprived of her life by agents of state justice.

At 41 years of age, Teresa Lewis might reasonably, in the normal course of events, have expected to live out her final years deep into the 2050s. Had the emotional trauma engendered by her imminent and inescapable death induced a heart attack or cerebral haemorrhage, the same doctor who stood ready (behind a cloak of anonymity and under pain of blacklisting) to supervise her execution would doubtless have leapt to her aid. Such is the grotesque, bathetic absurdity of death at the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen.

Teresa Lewis was accorded a more peaceful demise than that inflicted upon Delara Darabi (a juvenile at the time of her conviction), hanged by the Iranian government in 2009. Lewis’s alleged crimes – planning and facilitating the murder of her husband and stepson for financial gain – were certainly of a nature more viscerally repugnant than those of Du Yimin, executed in China for operating a massive Ponzi scheme (which, nonetheless, cost her “investors” less than a quarter of a percent of the sum Sean Fitzpatrick’s financial buccaneering will ultimately gouge from the pockets of the Irish taxpayer.)

In executing Lewis, the state of Virginia narrowly avoided the intolerable stigma of surviving an entire century without judicially squeezing the life from a captive woman. Hers was the 39th formal execution in the United States this year, and probably the most controversial. The showbiz killing of double murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, shot through the heart in Utah with four .30 calibre rounds at his own request, briefly excited the deadened palate of the US networks at the height of summer.

Similarly piquant retro charm attended the death of homicidal child rapist Paul Powell, bombarded with 1,800 volts of electricity until sparks and smoke danced about his convulsing body, a spectacle described by Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert as “vivid, meaningful and impressive” compared to the “anticlimax” of lethal injection.

Teresa Lewis’s USP was, of course, her gender. Exposure to the death penalty is one of the few arenas of victimisation which leaves American women largely untouched; otherwise, the usual suspects are present, correct and waiting to die. Blacks, Latinos and poor whites comprise almost the entire population of Death Row (in fact, there’s probably no “almost” about it.)

Since the reintroduction of capital punishment in 1976, 246 black prisoners have been executed for murdering white victims; executions resulting from white-on-black murders total just 15. Either African-Americans are genetically predisposed to murderous violence, or there’s an underlying prejudice at play within law enforcement agencies, jury selection and judicial sentencing procedures. If it takes you longer than five seconds to figure that one out, don’t let me detain you from your appointment with Fox News.

Assuming her guilt was justly apportioned, Lewis’s complicity in a monstrous crime animated by the basest, grubbiest motive of all was reprehensible, originating from the farthest bank of a moral Rubicon no feeling person could ever bear to cross. It is impossible, however, to escape the conclusion that she went to her death for no other reason than that she was a woman.

Her accomplices (in actuality, those who performed the deed) were sentenced to life imprisonment, while Lewis alone, the alleged “mastermind” with an I.Q. of 70, received the death penalty. The gleeful prurience of the Irish media’s interventions in the Nevin, Collins and Mulhall cases may serve as an instructive comparison to the atmosphere which surrounded Lewis’s trial, conviction and execution.

Beyond its exotic, shark-bait trimmings, one is inclined to question whether last night’s execution was more shocking, more deplorable for the fact that its victim was a woman. Objectively, one has to say no; instinctively, yes. I grew up in a family and community steeped in left republicanism, an ideology/deviation for which I hold no brief. Long after I’d discarded all those values which diverged from my own, however, two cast-iron, non-negotiable admonitions which were drummed into me repeatedly remained; never cross a picket-line, never strike a woman.

To digress briefly, I sometimes think that those two principles were related, that the latter isn’t attributable merely to the superficial bourgeois confection of chivalry. What I took from the steadfastness of that prohibition was an implicit, perhaps even subconscious acknowledgement that, in those times and those conditions, a man’s relationship to a woman would always tend towards the exploitative, and that physical violence would further, and inexcusably, solidify that tendency.

Underlying socio-economic factors, societal prejudices and unsound legal processes aside, it is probable that a substantial majority of those currently awaiting execution in the USA are guilty of horrendous crimes which render them unfit to function in society. And this, of course, is irrelevant.

I am a socialist not because I believe in the inherent efficiency of a planned economy (although I do), but because it is the only form of government, the only ordering of the world, which can uphold the humanity of the individual, of the community and of society, as sacrosanct and inviolable.

Capital punishment, where it is practised, functions as a brute instrument of class repression, prejudice, and chauvinism. Even if it didn’t, it would still be immoral. To hold a human life wholly within one’s power, to extinguish in cold blood the life of one who can do you no conceivable harm, is almost the acme of cruelty, the ideal form of exploitation.

The extirpation of this calculated evil is a cause for which socialists, if they are truly committed to humanitarianism, should strive alongside all those willing to lend their voices. The slogan is “Socialism or Barbarism” – they cannot co-exist.

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One Response to “The Cold Light of Death”

  1. Tomboktu Says:

    My own small stand on the death penalty is that I refuse to travel to a country the applies it.

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