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Weekly Opinion by Lindsey Eck


or George W. Bush and the Temple
of Doom

Horror in some parts of the Upper 49 over the assembly-line efficiency with which Texas carries out death sentences has stalked George W. Bush in the press. Pundits wonder whether Bush’s seeming joy in dispatching the likes of Karla Faye Tucker will cost him votes in November. As usual, the pundits misunderstand the fears and prejudices of the electorate, even as those fears and prejudices are stoked by the same media the pundits serve. To the degree Bush can be seen as the unflinching dispatcher of subhuman monsters — regardless of whether they are guilty of the specific capital crimes charged — it will only increase his machismo, hence his electability.

Few readers will need reminding of the undertaker’s dozen of defendants in Illinois sprung from Death Row based on amateur sleuthing by grad students, leading to a moratorium on executions by the formerly pro-death GOP governor. Against that background, Bush, improbably, claims that there was no doubt of innocence in any of the 137 (and counting) executions he has overseen so far.

Despite the widely quoted poll results from the Dallas Morning News that some 57% of Texans polled believe that an innocent person may have been Texecuted, 73% in the state still supports our slaughterhouse approach to dispatching the despicable. In other words, about a quarter or more of the Texan public wants executions to continue even if the occasional innocent person gets strapped to the gurney. Death-penalty proponents often cite the “vaccine” analogy, viz.: A few otherwise healthy people die from the administration of a vaccine, too, yet the treatment saves far more lives than it costs. (Note the theme of injection that connects the vaccine analogy with the mode of execution itself and, perhaps, with the slaughterhouse, where hams and other meats are injected with chemicals and solutions, a familiar motif in a partly meat-based economy.)

But the support for dispatching the potentially not guilty may have a more sinister basis than mere regrettable error, like an unintentional vaccine death. Since most persons on Death Row can be identified by their faces as belonging to minority groups or the lower WASP classes, it is likely that the willingness to lose a little wheat while threshing the chaff derives from the suspicion that the grains lost are of an inferior strain anyway. In short, the public at large cannot identify with and thus lacks empathy for the condemned, innocent or guilty.

In an obvious political move to be seen as “compassionate,” Bush granted a temporary reprieve to one Ricky McGinn — a canny choice since McGinn was easy to wish dead: The DNA test ordered for McGinn would settle only the technical question of whether McGinn had raped his stepdaughter; it was unquestioned that he had murdered her, but the rape made it a capital crime. Thus Bush got to seem “compassionately” willing to reprieve even the lowest of humanity — a stepdaughter murderer — on a technicality when it was clear that McGinn would not walk even if the DNA cleared him of the rape, while knowing that most likely the DNA would confirm McGinn’s guilt and the Texas system’s justice. Meanwhile, on t.v. McGinn comes off as the lowest of the low, with the kind of face stigmatized as “inbred” or “trailer trash” by perpetuators of Dixie stereotypes on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The McGinn case was obviously chosen knowing the result would be delight in the elimination of a lowlife element if DNA proved guilt, and horror over the injustice of not being able to rid America of the likes of McGinn if DNA proved innocence. Either way Bush could benefit from the spotlight on McGinn, but I’m sure he was particularly happy with the DNA results, which showed that McGinn had indeed raped the girl as well as killing her, hence the capital sentence was legal.

But, McGinn notwithstanding, most readers will have heard horror stories of Texans on death row despite coerced confessions, violations of international law, and even sleeping lawyers. Few down here doubt the system has its flaws. Why, then, do Texans overwhelmingly continue to support the execution system? And why do Americans vicariously obsess over Texans’ blithe enforcement of a penalty to which other states give lip service, but are much more reluctant to put their money where their needles are?

Let’s face it, Americans choose their Presidents based on telegenicity, height, and other markers of outright virility, never on rational factors such as intelligence. Note that both candidates are C students again this time around. But for sheer frontier cowboy manliness, it’s hard to beat the Roy Bean–like aura of presiding over string-’em-up justice.

Polls have shown no loss for Bush following the Graham execution or just about any execution (or any Bush declines are traceable to other reasons than failure to reprieve the condemned). No surprise there. Despite Americans’ willingness to pretend, when questioned, that they vote based on rational calculations, their actual political behavior shows they prefer virility, male dominance, in a President. Hence the joyful endorsement of the libidinous Clinton and the hangin’ Governor, oilman and baseball owner George W. Bush, both poster boys for American cojones. Gore has neither the reputation of ladykiller nor criminal killer to keep up.

So why does Bush get a pass on extremely questionable criminal-justice practices, not just on death row but throughout a sagebrush Gulag so extensive, Texas can be said to have withdrawn from the Free World? Why are conservative pundits so quick to laud the compassion of the most criminal-offin’ frat boy ever to wield the lethal pen? (For those who protest that Bush personally can only delay, not commute, death sentences, let's get real: Bush appoints the review board and could no doubt influence their policies if it suited him.) Surely it has to do with the national tendency to view Texas through the lens of its myth of outsized white male heroes.

Just as U.S. Presidents are chosen on such gonadal factors (as Ralph Nader might put it) as telegenicity and virility, the death penalty is administered to subalterns for whom the mass of the public can feel no empathy, because they are depicted as subhuman, and because the media obsessively focuses on those criminals whose deeds are so monstrous and incontrovertible that the confirmed t.v. watcher has been conditioned to wish only for their destruction. Texans, like farm children desensitized via repetition to the pigs being stuck, find the Huntsville horror chamber just another source of sadistic fascination, a spectacle of staged violence like Ultimate Fighting. Indeed, it is the media/political frenzy over punishment as a form of sadistic entertainment that brutalizes our society, much more than the executions themselves, no matter how unjust. Of course, Texas, where the Old South intersects the Old West, is once again the chosen Golgotha for this Biblical display of vengeance, as it has been the scene of so many macho displays.

After all, this is the state that brought (“voluntary”) castration of offenders back to modern jurisprudence. And the enthusiastic adoption of castration perfectly illustrates the real reasons for enthusiasm over lethal injections: Someone held to be despicable by society is literally emasculated in the name of justice. In the same system, others are put to death by an overwhelmingly male pyramidal hierarchy with the ultimate alpha, Governor Bush, defined by his very ability to sign death warrants of the despised, with the death-dealing power about the only form of destructiveness more prestigious than the ability of an appellate judge to approve a male genital mutilation.

Compared to Al Gore’s mere verbal support for death, Bush’s actual record of signing death warrants — far more than any other living American — can only enhance his virility, hence his electability, in the eyes of the public. I mean, if l’affaire Monica showed anything, it’s that Clinton’s image as a stud, a seducer of women and the electorate trumped any fundamentalist pieties about “family values” or any Stoic invocations of the “rule of law”. America votes for the most phallic candidate, whether expressed in actual sexuality, enthusiasm for the faux phallus of the automatic rifle (note Bush’s coziness with the NRA), or the superiority over other males (and the occasional female, like Karla Faye Tucker) represented by the ability to send them to their doom with a mere flourish of pen on paper, even with a smirk. Compared to Bush’s ability to wreak justice on the very flesh of the damned, Gore’s mere wardrobe changes in search of “alpha” status seem, well, mere Veep dressing.

Down here, when we do someting progressive or forward-looking, it is ignored by the national media. How may Americans are aware of Austin’s growth as a high-tech center? Few, but everyone knows Texas is where Governor Death presides over his Temple of Doom. So death-dealing in the name of frontier justice fits in well among the many mythic roles macho Texans serve within the American (cowboys, football stars, militiamen, Walker: Texas Ranger). To the degree we embody others’ primal fantasies of male dominance, revenge, and torment while relieving citizens of the Upper 49 of the guilt of inflicting the revenge and torment personally, the media will revel in our ballsiness. Should we show tendencies away from macho string-’em-up “justice” we&39;ll find ourselves ignored or condemned by the supposedly civilized for being insufficiently “tough.”

I don’t know about you but I didn’t grow up believing “tough” was a great thing to be. I was taught to be strong rather than tough. Perhaps we as Americans need to be strong enough to confront our motives in selecting some (notably Texans) for a ritual sacrifice to the blind goddess of Justice. Perhaps, like Europeans, we may someday acquire the maturity to admit that the condemned are chosen based on who they are, not what they did.

Gov. Bush is not likely to find capital punishment an impediment in his quest to trade a big Capitol for a bigger one. But, if there is ever hope of restoring rationality to politics, America needs to outgrow the scapegoating that Texas provides for its sadistic entertainment. Perhaps that will only come when we learn to equate leadership with rational, evenhanded justice rather than macho notions of revenge.

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