Of Monsters and Vampires: People Who Kill People and the People Who Kill Them

Published as a ZNet Commentary, December 4, 2000

My mother lied to me. She told me when I was a boy, so as to allay my fears to the contrary, that there were no such things as vampires; that there were not, in real life, those whose lust for human blood drove their every waking moment. This was a lie. I know this now, because lately I have been seeing them everywhere: not the traditional undead associated with Anne Rice novels, but the all-too-human vampires who stalk my state, and are planning to launch a serial killing spree as I write this; a spree that would entail executing the ninety-five men and women on Tennessee’s death row by way of something called, in appropriate Orwellian terms: “therapeutic intravenous intervention.”

After a forty-year hiatus, during which time Tennessee failed to carry out a single death sentence, the vampires finally claimed their first victim recently and are preparing to draw blood again. The April execution of Robert Glen Coe, who was fed sixteen different psychotropic drugs so as to render him sane enough for the state to kill, has emboldened them; turned many into something I no longer recognize, and yet recognize all too clearly. And that’s the most frightening thing of all. For in them I hear the vengeful words of fellow citizens, mostly decent, who are so afraid of crime and so desperate to create the illusion of safety, they have themselves turned to violence. And the process has rendered many the equivalent of kids in a candy shop.

We are told by those seeking to rev up the killing machine that those on death row are monsters, who deserve to die for their brutality. And indeed, some among the condemned have committed truly heinous atrocities, about which none should remain sanguine. But the question has never been, “do killers deserve to die,” but rather, does the state deserve to kill: a different question, requiring a different deliberation. For if we believe these “monsters” thought so little of their victims that they treated them as disposable garbage, how ironic is it that we would ratify this mindset of human disposability, give it voice and the sanction of the state; that we would second that emotion, as it were. And all to show how much we respect human life, which makes as much sense as stealing a stereo from one who takes your car, to show how much we respect personal property.

It’s sad we have come to this point; and even more that we have done so by lying to ourselves about the good this act will supposedly do for victim’s families. Having been through a hell unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t lost a loved one to a senseless act of violence, these folks seem to believe — one supposes they almost have to believe — that peace will descend upon them like warm blankets after their child or spouse’s killer is taken from the world. But it’s not true, and despite what the vampires representing the state might tell us, I think we know it. There is never closure for the families of murder victims. Their loved ones were too precious for the loss of them to be healed by the ending of another’s life. To imply otherwise is to cheapen the significance of the victim’s lives. It is to imply that the carrying out of revenge can numb the pain of losing someone so meaningful; that the hole left in a family’s collective heart by murder can be filled by another corpse.

But new corpses require new holes; and in this case the new holes will be those created in yet more innocent families: namely, those of the condemned. After an execution, they feel the same kind of loss as the families of those their loved ones killed, and they receive not one-tenth the sympathy for their pain as the latter; and the mothers and fathers and children of those murdered will still feel the same loss they always felt; and there will be twice as much emptiness as before, and exponentially more pain, and not a bit more safety for the people of Tennessee, or any other state engaged in this process.

I think we know this too: that it isn’t about safety, or filling emptiness left by the loss of a loved one. We know it’s about payback, and deep down we realize there’s something wrong with that as a motivation for human action. So we try to get as much distance as possible between ourselves and the process. We dehumanize the person we seek to execute, so as to make it possible for us to kill him or her: for if we allow ourselves to see them as our potential brothers, sisters, or children, we might be paralyzed by a spontaneous combustion of conscience, and become unable to do this thing.

So most states kill in the middle of the night, when everyone is sleeping, undisturbed by what is going on with their money, and in their names. They can read about it after the fact, in the newspapers, where it will take on the immediate feel of archival history, as opposed to what it might feel like if these things were done mid-day, during lunch, so that busy working folks might have to confront the awful truth over that cold third cup of coffee, that stale sandwich from the office vending machine, or their daily e-mail routine.

And in Tennessee we passed legislation to keep the identity of the executioner secret, as if there is something to be ashamed of in this process. But why be ashamed, if as we’re told this is such a noble enterprise in which we’re engaged? One would think we’d be holding job fairs for the position of executioner, and that folks would be falling over themselves to get such a prestigious and important gig, and placing it at the top of their resume when they got it. But no, we keep it secret, because deep down, we know there is something wrong here. Not just here, but elsewhere too, in places like Idaho and Utah, which still use the firing squad: five guys with rifles, one of which shoots blanks so as to offer each of the five the plausible deniability of thinking that maybe they didn’t really kill anyone. “Maybe it was shooters one through four who had the bullets,’ whispers the fifth man as he sits at home drinking a beer after the deed has been done, ‘while I was shooting blanks. And so now I can rest better at night.” But why be restless if what one had been engaged in was noble? Clearly, we keep the blank gun because it allows doubt, and doubt vanquishes guilt, and we hate to feel guilty. Maintaining our innocence throughout this process is something we take very seriously: thus, the need to dehumanize the condemned. This was never clearer to me than it became after the first time I visited death row in Tennessee.

There was a guard there in his mid-twenties, whose short time on the row had been insufficient to turn him into one of the unfeeling, brutal types we often hear about. But he was working on it: working hard to become as cold, and harsh, and bureaucratically efficient as any of his older counterparts. Yet, short of the passage of time, the only way he could accomplish this — one suspects it is the only way anyone could — was to mentally remove himself from the solemnity of the process in which he was engaged; to remove his charges from the common circle of humanity of which he is a part.

It’s an awful thing to watch one do this: to leap the ideological and emotional chasms necessary to cut oneself off from the lives of others so easily. But there it was. And it was terrifying to witness: a man explaining in one breath what a great artist one of the guys on the row is, and how another writes beautiful poetry, and how much he has in common with yet another; and then in the next breath explaining how none of that matters, and how he can’t let himself think about it for too long, because he has a job to do, he says, and you can’t allow yourself to get too close, he says, to forget why they’re here, he says, because they’ll lie to you, he says, they’ll con you, he says, and “you have to remember that.”

For a man to have to divorce himself in this fashion from the sense of a common humanity and to compartmentalize his emotions so as to put bread on his own table, and to do his job, is a terrible thing–an undignified thing. It is to make him a victim of this same system; to dehumanize him along with the men he will guard until they are put to death, or until he cracks, forgetting for a minute that he’s not to treat them as people, but rather as zoo animals. And if he forgets this one too many times, he will be transferred somewhere else, replaced by someone who won’t have the same problem.

And there are many who would be all too willing to take his place. They are the folks who call in to talk shows and explain in a fashion so detailed it would boggle the mind of even the most creative screenwriter, exactly what they would like to do to those on death row. They are the folks who offer to peel off the skin of those they have deemed monsters, layer by layer, then glue it back together with permanent adhesive, then rip it off again, or who threaten to slice off the testicles of some of the men, or sodomize them with baseball bats covered in nails. These are but some of the voices of the kind souls who want to make clear how much they abhor crime, violence, and deviance, and who see nothing at all criminal, violent or deviant in their own sadistic rage. They would make fine prison guards, all of them, especially in a system as sick as this one.

Amazing isn’t it, that the same folks who view government so cynically when it comes to taxes, mail delivery, road construction, education, or health care, and insist the state is incapable of addressing these issues with equanimity and fairness, somehow find it possible to believe this same state can dispense justice, and even the ultimate punishment, without a hint of impropriety, bias, or error. Most disturbing of all, once dead it becomes ever more necessary for people to rationalize an inmate’s execution. For we want nothing more it seems than to believe we live in Kansas, rather than the twisted, distorted land of Oz in which we find ourselves presently: a place where, just as in the movie, folks believe what they want and need to believe, and pay no attention to what lies behind the curtain.

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