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Celebrity Executions: From Jesus to Tookie

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This season, America celebrates a holiday whose premise is that God himself came to Earth -- and was given the death penalty. Tookie Williams died at Midnight on the Feast Day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of God and patron saint of the Americas. How fitting that the GOP and the Religious Right lobbied for the execution -- and that Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Catholic whose church opposes the death penalty, made the final decision.

Celebrity executions, from Jesus to Tookie Williams, have whatever meaning human actions give them. And the meaning of Tookie's? That the Religious Right, that bastion of politicized pseudo-religion and hypocritical power-grabbing, pronounced its own spiritual death by shouting hosannahs for his execution -- as it has done for the anonymous dead before him.

No disrespect is intended by calling the Crucifixion a "celebrity execution." Quite the contrary -- the power and meaning of the Christ story as it was taught to me is just that: that God Himself came to Earth anonymously and died despised and forgotten by all but a few, only to be redeemed on behalf of all. His celebrity came later, as a result of His sacrifice. The significance of the death lies in its affirmation of life, in the understanding of believers that it was an act of love -- love for life and the living.

That's why the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty. There are other reasons to oppose state murder, too, which is why so many atheists and agnostics do -- probably in greater numbers than their neighbors who claim religious affiliation. Buddhists as well as many Hindus, Protestants, and Jews, also oppose the practice on principle.

Once you leave aside the Religious Right -- which is neither "religious" nor "right," just an unholy alliance of Republican party hacks, social-conservative activists, and self-promoting preachers -- this isn't a matter of politics as usual. We may differ on many things, but on this issue (as on the unjustness of the Iraq war) I stand with the Holy Mother Church.

So, for me (and I suspect for others), the Tookie Williams case became an appropriate moment to highlight the abritrary and unreasonable nature of the death penalty. Was he less than an ideal "poster child," as Atrios wrote? Maybe, although I'm not so sure. Even those like Atrios who think he was a poor "tactical choice," however, agree strongly that that's no reason to die.

Did the fact that he knew Snoop Dogg make him special? Of course not. His life was no more valuable than anyone else's, but -- because of his biography -- it had the potential to be instructive. And, because of his celebrity, it had the potential to be noticed. Sadly, in moral causes as elsewhere -- celebrity sells. But to what end?

For some of us, it's simple: There is no proof that capital punishment deters crime. If one in 1,000 is executed wrongly, the state has killed unjustly. The burden of proof is in the wrong place. It should be with those who advocate the death sentence, not those who oppose it. How can we kill unjustly without proof that it will ever save a life?

I should shorten that sentence. "How can we kill unjustly?" Or, even better -- "How can we kill?" Should we as a society end life? What would we decide, if we could prove one day that the death penalty did deter murder? Then -- and only then -- would the topic even be worthy of dialogue. And it would be a long road from dialogue to justifying the ongoing killing that scars our headlines. People change, but I can't imagine ever taking that journey. Today, therefore, I choose life.

Sacco and Vanzetti. Tookie Williams. Jesus. The mentally retarded. Youthful offenders. And now Mark Kleiman draws our attention to the case of Cory Maye. From the Roman Empire of 2000 years ago to the United States of today, they go on in an unbroken chain ...

Anthropologists say that Our Lady of Guadalupe is derived from traditional South American belief systems, not from Juan Diego's vision of the Holy Mother in 1531. Yet visions, like executions, derive their meaning from human experience.

This was her night, Our Lady's night. It was the night of the first American saint, that saint of those other Americans ... the ones who don't have the right papers or the right job, who don't speak like the woman who gives the weather report, or like the man who gives the news of another prisoner executed -- his life ending on this, Our Lady's night in the Season of the Star.

"Mystical Rose," one prayer begins in soft Spanish, "... help all those who invoke you in their needs ... obtain for us ... sweet hope in the midst of the bitterness of life of burning charity, and the precious gift of final perseverance."

Another Christmas is coming to the Americas, and another American is gone. If you pray, don't pray for him: pray for us.


A Night Light