On loving victims -- the criminal kind

Posted: Aug 21, 2001 12:00 AM
A writer for the New York Times makes known that Texans (bloodthirsty gunslingers as we are) are starting to waver in our well-known support for the death penalty. And he cites compelling evidence: a rapid drop in the pace of state executions; passage of a bill, vetoed by the governor, to exempt the mentally retarded from execution; now, the Court of Criminal Appeals' stay of Napoleon Beazley's scheduled execution for murder. Could Texans truly be developing scruples -- or just weak stomachs -- concerning capital punishment? That Houston criminal defense lawyer who famously slept through portions of his client's trial! Had he not since then gone permanently to sleep, he would merit a testimonial dinner from death penalty foes for services rendered to the Cause. A cause in which, supposedly, the rest of us will enlist as soon as we slough off our Old Testament notions of revenge. So how soon will that be? As soon maybe as some competing considerations are set out for general discussion -- e.g., justice and moral equivalence. The moment doesn't seem at hand. What is a murderer (the only species of criminal we nowadays execute)? A murderer is one who murders. Increasingly, Americans fail to stumble to the tail end of that definition. If you're going to feel and express sorrow, isn't the proper object the victim? Not necessarily, it appears. Mark Twain, no friend to sentimentalism, saw it coming. "Injun Joe,'' he observed in Tom Sawyer, "was believed to have killed five citizens of the village, but what of that? If he had been Satan himself, there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their names to a pardon-petition, and drip a tear on it from their permanently impaired and leaky waterworks." Over a century later, during the run-up to the thwarted Beazley execution, how often did you hear that the perpetrator did an unspeakable thing to John Luttig, killing him for his car and also trying to kill his wife? More usual was it to hear and read, courtesy of the media, about young Mr. Beazley, senior class president, athlete, good kid gone momentarily bad. Very modern. Our culture of victimology works oddly, as you may have noticed. We care about victims all right -- those afflicted with this disadvantage or that one: women, ethnic minorities, the disabled. The list is long. The oddity is in the omissions. Murder victims seem to excite less compassion than do their murderers. Take young Mr. Beazley. Take the Houston woman who drowned her five children, one by one, in the bathtub. She's now got a defense fund going, touted on TV by Katie Couric, and a gaggle of journalistic supporters explaining smoothly the dire consequences of postpartum depression and psychosis. Could we maybe work up a little sympathy for five children inexplicably -- to them -- plunged underwater by their own mother? That's not, alas, the topic of the moment. There is something sick in this lack of moral proportion, in these busy attempts to explain away evil actions. Only the Madame Defarges of our disordered world, with their clicking needles and self-satisfied cluckings, relish the idea of the state's taking a life. The state doesn't do it for chuckles. The state -- our designated guarantor of peace and order -- does it for the sake of moral equivalence. Punishments are supposed to fit crimes. If not, what's the use? The bloody subtraction of a John Luttig from our midst is an injury to the moral order -- as well as an unending horror in the minds of his loved ones. You might hope the injury, the horror, would engage public sympathy in a way young Mr. Napoleon Beazley's academic achievements never could. But it seems you might not get your wish.