Once in a while it may do us good to look back at a catastrophe or crisis from the perspective of a few days of past time.
While I was traveling around the country observing the growth of new unity and purpose in other communities, California was marching, step by step, towards an act of social disintegration of such folly and waste that hardly an informed person believed that it would ever really happen. The victim is dead and his agony, however horrible, was a matter of brief time. Men die far worse deaths every minute. His executioners are ruined and demoralized men. The society which produced this act is now in permanent bitter conflict with itself, a conflict which shall not be resolved until the possibility of at least this form of mass psychosis is done away with forever.
Someone once said that the English Puritans objected to bear-baiting, not because of the pain it caused to the bear, but because of the pleasure it gave to spectators. He was under the impression he had scored a witty point against the Puritans. I am about as far from being a Puritan as can be imagined, but I think this principle is one of the foundations of all social ethics. Vindictiveness, terror, persecution, cruelty often ennoble their victims; they always degrade the society in which they are permitted to flourish. The society which institutionalizes them eventually perishes. They are like voluntary cancers, these institutions, and the day of reckoning is certain, and usually soon. War-crazed Assyria, Revolutionary France of the Terror, Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany — how quickly the day of retribution comes! Vindictive false justice gets its own vindication from history.
I am not what is usually called a religious man, but any discussion of capital punishment demands a more or less religious approach, because it is itself a religious rite. It is the ancient rite of the scapegoat, one of the oldest ways in which society atoned for its own sins and assuaged its own guilt. Today we are no longer men of the Late Stone Age, and however much it may once have served the purpose of social hygiene, today it has turned into its opposite. It intensifies all the guilts rampant in society, it identifies every man in the community, not with acts of social good, not with penance and amendment of life, but with a deliberate act of positive evil. This is why, in the historic cases of Dreyfus, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, the Reichstag Fire Trial, the Moscow Trials, the public cry for blood has mounted, not diminished, as the conviction of the victims’ innocence spread through society. The catechism speaks of a sacrament as an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual reality. The shocking ceremoniousness of capital punishment is the outward visible sign of a kind of anti-sacrament, a real Black Mass, which drives men apart, each to his own guilty vengeance, and which is always there, gnawing at the sources of communion amongst men like a rat, like a cancer.
“It doesn’t hurt, it will be over in a minute,” the warden and the chaplains say. What has this got to do with it? Stalin, crazy with blood, at least killed his victims shamefully, in secret cork-lined cellars. The issue is not the death of a man or a few minutes of agony. We have used science to ensure the ceremoniousness of this rite.
The beginning of the Machine Age gave us the guillotine, electricity gave us Sacco and Vanzetti, biochemistry gave us Caryl Chessman, as physics gave us Hiroshima. Go back and read the eyewitness stories of the 2nd of May. What is shocking is not the gruesome death, far from painless, far from quick, far from silent, but the demonic liturgy, the ritual performance, which involves society directly in responsibility — you and me, personally, in vengeance and the absolute rejection of charity — without which, as was once observed, we are only empty vessels of sounding brass — robots, automatons.
What about our proxies, the men who took our responsibility? As happened once in the Sanhedrin, they have chosen expediency and it has ruined them. There is one man who will never be President or vice president, there is another who will never be governor, there is another who has thrown away the confidence of his race. How easy, we think, it would have been to have acted nobly. How easy to choose the greater ultimate good than the lesser immediate good. Do we? You and I, individually? Which is more important, water rights, elections, conventions, or the power to rise and become, in the words of Anatole France, “a moment in the conscience of mankind”? Over that weekend many people held before the eyes of the Governor the great example of Governor Altgeld, who destroyed himself politically by an act of moral courage and so became one of the few heroes who have ever held public office. Does this present man, now that the great opportunity has passed, turn over and over in his mind a parody of Vachel Lindsay’s greatest lines, “Sleep softly, partridge forgotten, under the red tape”?
What about the living man, the man who committed the act, who was our unbloodied hand? Let us not forget that society does not kill the criminal, some single actual man does it — not for an abstract society, but for you and me separately and severally.
And us, you and me, finally, who choose the easy way out when the way of responsibility and love is too difficult? We are the ones who suffer permanently in gas chambers and on gallows as long as they endure. The victims are soon dead. The most heart-rending words in the chanting of the Passion in the Catholic Church in Holy Week are not “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” but three terrible syllables, in answer to the question, “Shall I let this just man go, or shall I give you the robber Barrabas?” and the people answered, you and I answered, “Barrabas.”
Vengeance is sweeter than justice, and easier to come by, but it is deadly and certain poison.
(Kenneth Rexroth, May 15, 1960)