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7 September 2003
The Needle and the Damage Done

The execution by injection on Wednesday of a Floridian who murdered a women’s-reproduction physician should help us see why the death penalty must end, now and everywhere. The death of Paul Hill makes it obvious the penalty is not achieving its supposed aims of deterrence and victims’ justice. Instead it serves base instincts of revenge, plays into a national trend toward sadism as entertainment, and offers the condemned an opportunity for a courageous martyrdom. For a terrorist like Hill, as with McVeigh and Koresh, as with suicide bombers and Al Qaeda, death for the cause is not a punishment but a fulfillment. And the public vengeance on Hill, far from serving the public safety, will inspire imitators eager to join the hideous movement.

According to Time’s online edition, Hill left behind “a how-to manual for people looking to follow in his violent footsteps.” Hill’s martyrdom, in the estimation of his warped, apocalyptic followers, will now lend this testament the force of prophecy, a bloody scripture for today’s violent fanatics to venerate. Had the killer instead been left to rot in obscurity, there is a chance he might have come to his senses and repudiated his ravings. There is the certainty that whatever he said and did would not have been the talk of the nation.

It strains belief that Hill was allowed to call a news conference to celebrate the crime for which he was put to death and incite others to go and do likewise:

In a last statement before his execution, Hill thanked God for his family and urged anyone against abortion to do what they could to prevent it.
“Two of the last things that I would like to say — if you believe abortion is a lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to to stop it. May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want them to be protected.”
Before the execution, Hill said he would kill again to save the unborn and was looking forward to dying for his cause.
“I believe the state, by executing me, will be making me a martyr,” he told a news conference.
— BBC; emphasis added

Jeb Bush, it seems, had to walk a political tightrope. A professed Catholic whose power base includes Cuban exiles and other conservative Latinos, he feels the pressure of Church opposition to both capital punishment and abortion. As governor of one of the biggest death states, though, he could hardly allow himself, as he put it, to be “bullied” into commuting the sentence of a theocratic anarchist. Even if Jeb’s real motive is sibling rivalry — a psychic and political need to follow W in using the power to condemn as a prop for his machismo — one might grudgingly grant Jeb credit for a bit of backbone in taking this stance. That credibility is blown away, however, by the Governor’s willingness to split the difference, as it were, with those who approve of abortion-clinic shootings, by granting their hero a platform for grandstanding on the way to the gurney. It may not be coincidental that Hill’s smirk — a pained, self-righteous rictus — as he announced his impending heavenly reward eerily resembled W’s famous leer. Both are redolent of a perverse self-righteousness based on revelation, not reason.

There’s a lot of unreason, as reflected in posturing and misleading talk, when it comes to reproductive medicine as reinterpreted by self-appointed apostles. For example, the debate over “therapeutic cloning” (itself something of a misnomer) has frequently referred to the destruction of “human embryos,” yet by a strict medical definition these masses have not yet reached the stage of development that defines an embryo. And abortion debates routinely refer to the “killing of a fetus” or even a “baby” when most abortions take place in the first trimester, when what’s aborted is a tiny embryo, not a viable fetus. The “morning-after pill” is not an “abortion drug” since no implantation has occurred when it is taken. And so on. Decisions — like the hysterical votes over “partial-birth abortion” — are taken for their tabloid impact, the screaming headlines and snarling pundits they can incite, not for their medical and social value to the Republic.

For example, I nearly used the phrase “abortion doctor” in the first paragraph of this story, as did Time in the story I quoted. And to do so would be succumbing to propaganda, since “abortion doctors” are typically OB-GYNs for whom an abortion is just one procedure in a complex repertoire of reproduction-management practices. Some of these may or may not result in expulsion of an early pregnancy even if that is not their prinicpal intention. “Abortion doctor” is a misleading oversimplification.

The distinction was driven home to me in 1994 with the killing of two and wounding of five of an OB-GYN office in the very block in Brookline, Massachusetts where my then-wife had consulted with her own doctor, whose expert care ensured the healthy birth of our son years earlier. That is, it easily could have been us or any patient or husband there for a pelvic exam, or an ultrasound. Even the abortion-clinic sniper, to whom doctors are “baby killers” God told them to execute, must admit that the dead and wounded wind up including bystanders, nurses, and others innocent of the supposed “crime.”

Posturing and inflammatory talk of God and gore. It reduces our public policy to an armed feud over symbols that befit a barbarian tribe, not a society that brands itself the world’s most advanced.

Let’s hope the pair of D.C.-area snipers aren’t afforded an interview before their execution in which they can spew some sort of paranoid, hate-filled ideology as justification. But there’s the possibility of a ratings bonanza to rival the Michael Jackson interview, so the temptation may prove too great. Even if, like some barbaric video game, it inspires crimes of imitation. I wonder if they could coordinate big-time executions with Sweeps Week?

Giving terrorists a stage on which to enact the last act of their personal tragedy in front of cameras will incite, not deter, repeat performances. A lifetime of obscure and harsh incarceration is a far greater punishment than a martyrdom for the cause. Not only for America’s apocalyptic terrorists, but for all murderers, deterrence and the public safety will be best served by replacing the catharsis of a merciful and public death with the real punishment of a life of cold confinement.

Turn over another new leaf:
31 August 2003
Political Theater of the Absurd
Act I
Arnold Schwarzenegger  •  Gray Davis
Cruz Bustamante  •  Arianna Huffington
California Split

The Golden State opts for entertainment over governance in this lame comedy based on a goober-natorial recall.

Act II
Tom DeLay  •  Rick Perry 
Gonzalo Barrientos
The Unforgiven

Texas Democrats vamoose to the high desert while the Grand Old Posse tries to round ’em up. But are there any good guys in this overlong Western?

Judge Roy Moore is
The Apostle

A misbegotten epic, this Moore vehicle attempts to remake The Ten Commandments but comes off more like a pale Forrest Gump.

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