On Tuesday the Terminator Terminates a Septuagenarian

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET
  • Trey Ellis Novelist, Screenwriter, and Associate Professor at Columbia University

I wrote extensively about Stanley "Tookie" Williams, not because he was black like me but because regardless of how one feels about the death penalty, Mr. Williams served the public good more alive than dead. When he was alive he urged youths to avoid the gang life that he pioneered, Now that he has been executed he serves only as a symbol of the State's callous deafness to the needs of the inner city.

Now on Tuesday Governor Schwarzenegger will oversee the execution of Clarence Ray Allen a minute after his 76th birthday. This septuagenarian white guy is legally blind, diabetic and in a wheelchair. A rotten sonofabitch to be sure, he was convicted twenty years ago of orchestrating from prison a triple murder of potential witnesses to the first murder that he was convicted of.

I grew up in the Seventies when the death penalty was abolished and folks dreamed of a kinder future. I couldn't have been more than twelve when I first saw the poster in my friend's big sister's room (next to her Peter Max print). It read simply, "Why do we kill people who kill people to show killing people is wrong." I have never once heard a pro-death penalty advocate successfully counter that simple logic. Then in the Eighties Reaganisms "Greed is Good" captured the zeitgeist and by 1988 the death penalty was back on the federal books.

Yet here we are in 2006. Why are we still executing anyone, let alone a half-blind, diabetic great-grandpa cripple the day after his birthday? His illnesses only highlight the barbarism of this medieval punishment. What happens on Monday? Maybe he tells the orderly (that he cannot see because he is blind), "No insulin injection today, thank you. I'm getting another shot tonight. And screw the diabetes anyway. I want a birthday cake full of sugar. Maybe wash it down with a real Pepsi. I always hated that Splenda crap."

After watching the Governor's ultimately cavalier handling of the Williams case I have no hope whatsoever that he will change his mind about Mr. Allen's fate. But I wonder about the rest of us. Why are we so seduced by self-righteousness that we feel that it is somehow just to kill a person in the name of the law? We know it doesn't reverse the loss, we know it doesn't deter crime, we know capital cases cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more than keeping a prisoner behind bars, and yet six years into the new millennium the State is still in the business of killing. It is easy for us to be horrified by the barbaric excesses of fundamentalist Islam: the stonings, the beheadings, the hands being lopped off. It is easy for us to decry the Somalis performing cliterodectomies on innocent little girls. Yet when will we realize that barbarism begins at home?