I love my home, the great state of Georgia. Every time I hear a disparaging joke or comment about Georgia or the south in general, I feel the need to defend the place and people I know and respect. Such was the case early last week when a history class began the day with a discussion of the Troy Davis case. While I admitted that the facts of the case were troubling, I refused to let the class walk away assuming that Mr. Davis faced death solely because he was black. The truth is much more depressing then that.
In the most recent Gallup Poll available on capital punishment, 64 percent of Americans hold a “favorable” opinion of the death penalty. Of the 34 states which still conduct executions, 13 of them—representing all 13 stars of the Confederate battle flag—are in the south. My home state didn’t want to kill Troy Davis because he was black. It wanted to kill him because our culture believes killing is a necessary part of a civilized society.
I cannot pretend to be an expert in the particulars of the Troy Davis case. I will not make any attempt here to defend either the state’s case against him, nor his supporters’ case against the state. In my mind, both are irrelevant to the central question of this controversy: Can a democratic government uphold the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while putting to death its own citizens?
Years ago, I looked within to find some reason to justify continuing to support the death penalty. Neither then, nor now, can I find a single, compelling fact that makes cold blooded murder a vital function of American government. During the recent Arab Spring, our leaders have not hesitated to contrast the “blood-thirsty” nature of embattled regimes with our own, “tolerant” spirit. Yet, those almost universally despised, despotic governments in Egypt, Syria, and Libya combined to execute fewer of their citizens in 2010 than did our own system of “justice.”
On the same day Troy Davis died for supposedly killing a police officer in Georgia, another man was executed in Texas. In the summer of 1998, a black man named James Byrd was kidnapped, chained to the back of a truck, and dragged until his body literally disintegrated. Russell Brewer was one of the three men who committed this modern day lynching, and for his crimes, the state of Texas took his life. Unlike the case of Troy Davis, there were not significant doubts as to Brewer’s guilt. Supporters of the death penalty will point to such crimes and ask, what else, but death, can possibly answer such irredeemable hate?
The outrage and activism inspired by the failed attempts to save Troy Davis are noble and important steps towards the end of state-run murder. But until we understand that the killing of loathsome men like Russell Brewer is every bit as unnecessary and unjustifiable as the executions of potentially innocent men, our culture cannot accept the fact that murder is wrong no matter what the circumstance.
Troy Davis and Russell Brewer did not die because of the colors of their skin, or at least, not just because of them. They died because the south in particular, and Americans in general, continue to live in an Old Testament world, where retribution, not justice, is the goal. The execution of Troy Davis made me ashamed of the place I called home. I could not consider myself a person of principle if the execution of Russell Brewer did not fill me with shame as well. Guilt or innocence can be debated. The inherent inhumanity of the death penalty cannot.