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Nietzsche's Abyss



That nicely sums up my torturous feelings about capital punishment, the very topic I tell students they may never write about for their final research papers.

I have been thinking about Nietzsche's words during the trial of Ricky Javon Gray, one of the men accused of the Harvey slayings. At about the time jury selection became a daily event in our local news last week, in another state an elderly relative of a friend was the victim of an unspeakably violent crime. The suspects are known in the community and arrests are likely soon. I wish that would bring me some rest.

But it cannot. When criminals are executed, their deaths do not bring families back to where they were before the crime. The death of a perpetrator might, at best, lend assurance that the convicted would never walk free again. Even the Briley brothers — who along with an accomplice committed a seven-month-long series of random killings here in the late '70s — escaped from prison, and that made them a potential threat to all of us until they were caught and executed.

There is a darker reality to executions, however, that we rarely discuss. The act tosses a pail of blood to the mob to show that punishment, if not justice, is still possible. Effective punishment would deter others, yet any number of studies show that execution does little if anything to stop would-be killers. Other harder-nosed statistics show it less expensive to incarcerate a felon for life than to go through the lengthy process of appeals before an execution.

Yet today, despite this logic and my deep moral disgust over capital punishment, I find myself in the mob, wanting blood.

Like many people I know, I was raised in a religious tradition that shuns capital punishment. Yet even without quoting contradictory passages about mercy and killing from both the Qur'an or the Bible, it's plain to see that we all have difficulty sorting out wanton violence from justifiable acts of defense. If that were not so, we'd not have the convoluted justifications from so-called Muslim jihadis for their indiscriminate killings of civilians or from so-called Christians who murder abortion providers.

When death and vengeance get closer to home, it gets even more confusing. When a cousin was tortured and shot twice by robbers in the 1970s, our whole family reeled, and the pain continued long after he recovered and went back to his wife, children and career. Then a few years later, two neighborhood friends were on the other side of the gun: one was convicted of a murder that was racially motivated, and the other did his time for what is euphemistically called "a crime of passion." Such personal knowledge made it difficult to reduce my feelings to "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out," the sort of moronic words one reads on bumper stickers or hears outside prison gates during an execution. One of the killers I knew growing up helped me get to school in the morning; the other one and I used to work on our cars together.

Still, there are cases where I badly want to be rid of a monster. It is difficult to support that without being lumped together with the cretins who chant "Burn baby, burn!" on the night that the deed is done. Instead I side more often with the others at an execution, those folks holding their candles and their ideals close to them, sheltering both against the wind.

If only I could do that in every case. I won't stand with them on their vigils if one occurs for the Harveys' killers or for the two callous men who so harmed my friend's relative. Sometimes I just want — wearily, sadly — to exact revenge and give the mob the blood it craves.

And even as I do, I see Nietzsche's abyss gazing back at me. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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