Thinking about the survivors (11/3/01)

Am I a huge supporter of the rights of those in prison? No, not really. If the American justice system wasn’t racist, corrupt, etc., I’d state firmly that we should be able to do just about whatever we like to those who have committed some of the more horrendous crimes and will never be released back into society. If we want to apply water torture, painful electrical shocks to the genitals, whatever, that’s cool. I have very little sympathy for murderers and rapists. But I consider the death penalty to be a great betrayal of those who have already been damaged by the crime.

This is not a column about the problems within our legal and penitentiary systems; it will contain no figures and only a few objective facts. Neither is it concerned with the basic sanctity of human life or the possibility that the death penalty falls under the heading of “cruel and unusual punishments.” It is about the right of the families of crime victims to live whole lives.

On Oct. 30, a story appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune titled “Learning to leave the hate behind.” It concerned the mother of a murdered man named Andrew Young, and her warm correspondence with the man who murdered her son four years ago. She believes her ability to forgive her son’s killer has helped her heal and better honor the memory of her son.

Am I saying families and friends of murder victims need to welcome the perpetrators with open arms? Not precisely. But I do believe that use of the death penalty is something that only feeds the need for revenge and does not help the survivors to work towards healing. The danger lies in the belief that the death of a murderer will somehow cure the anger of the grieving, when it is far more likely to leave the bereaved without a clear target on which to focus their rage. The relationship between the families of the dead and the killers is one that needs to be somehow resolved, through some sort of acceptance if not explicit forgiveness. It is difficult to settle issues with the dead.

In Littleton, scene of the infamous high school shooting at Columbine a year and a half ago, a community is tearing its members apart in their frustration over not being able to point their anger towards the actual perpetrators, who took their own lives. The school district, the sheriff and the parents of the shooters are all being sued by the families of the dead and wounded and the families of other students who were not physically harmed but who have nowhere else to lay the blame. Previously minor issues of religion and beliefs or even style and recreation are becoming reasons to seek major fault, e.g.: “It’s attitudes like that that brought about Columbine.”

This is the kind of emotional torture I fear will occur to the families of murder victims if their feelings about the killer are frozen forever because of the execution of that individual, especially if they remain locked in the sort of rage that allows them to rejoice in the application of the death penalty. I hope not to sound superior or overly pious - trust me, I’m neither - but I sincerely believe that the emotional needs of those left behind are better served if criminals are left alive, to remain a dynamic part of their healing process.

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