"Tonight Another Man Will Die":Crime, Violence, and the Master Tropes of Contemporary Arguments about the Death Penalty
Stephen John Hartnett & Daniel Mark Larson
Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies
Vol. 3, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 263-287
Merging our work as grassroots activists and scholars, we map the master tropes of contemporary arguments both for and against the death penalty. This rhetorical work is preceded by analyses of who uses the death penalty and why, noting especially the overlap between lynching and capital punishment; the status of exonerations, moratoriums, and contested scientific evidence; and recent court cases affecting executions. In addition to providing this informational overview of, and rhetorical road map to, debates about executions, we argue that each master trope suggests useful political strategies for advocating against the death penalty.
Keywords: Capital Punishment; Crime; Violence; Abolition; Prison-Industrial-Complex
As the clock approached midnight on 4 May 1999, the state of California executed Manny Babbitt. This was a controversial execution because when Babbit committed the crime for which he was sentenced to die, he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, one of the debilitating results of his medal-winning tour of duty in Vietnam. While Babbit waited to die that night, and while thousands of protesters gathered outside the walls of San Quentin prison to bear witness, Babbit’s fellow death row prisoner, Joseph Hart, wrote this poem:
Tonight another man will die
Another tear will fall
As you kill my friend.
What a horrible state
To kill to show
That killing is wrong.
I’m tired of losing my friends, and wonder
How many more will die?
How many more will die?
Spurred by Hart’s burning question and the memory of standing outside San Quentin prison that and other evenings, I (SJH) have spent the past seven years traveling around the nation giving lectures and poetry readings, participating on panels, and hosting community conversations about the prisonindustrial complex and the death penalty. These travels have taken me through the heartland (Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan), the Northeastern seaboard (Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania), the Deep South (Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Texas), the Middle South (Missouri and Tennessee), and the far West (California and Washington). My range of experiences is therefore limited, reaching but fifteen of our fifty states, meaning it is a stretch to claim that my journeys have taught lessons that are representative of the nation as a whole. Nonetheless, these ventures have given me a first-hand sense of how many of my neighbors argue about crime, violence, and the death penalty. By coupling my notes from these travels with Daniel Larson’s research on the subject, we have come to believe that contemporary debates about the death penalty break down into three master tropes, each including a prodeath penalty and abolitionist angle. These master tropes are: (1) The Rhetorics of Closure vs. Reconciliation, which amount to dueling philosophies of time;(2) The Rhetorics of Horrible Acts, which amount to dueling versions of causality ; and (3) The Rhetorics of Systemic Error, which amount to dueling theories of process . Mapping contemporary arguments about the death penalty in this way should give readers the ability to make sense of what may appear to be a string of contradictions, a jumbled mess of non-sequiturs, or a swirling web of anger. Our hope is that understanding these ubiquitous tropes and their persuasive powers will enable activists and scholars to wade through the barrage of public arguments about crime and violence to produce stronger, more effective arguments about the death penalty. We accordingly end our analysis of each master trope by suggesting how it points to practical political strategies for abolitionists.
Before proceeding,we offer the caveat that death penalty argumentation historically has relied on two additional tropes that we will not address here in detail. First, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opponents of the death penalty argued that executions sullied the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment, which they argued was building a New World of public reason, moderate jurisprudence, expanded education, and social progress. As Cesare Beccaria argued in his 1764 On Crimes and 264 S. J. Hartnett & D. M. Larson Punishment, the ‘‘present enlightened century’’ calls for a rejection of executions, which are but ‘‘entrenched and legitimized examples of cold-blooded atrocity.’’ Such thinking dominated abolitionist arguments up until the US Civil War, after which talk about the Enlightenment in general, let alone the Enlightenment as a reason to abolish executions, lapsed into obscurity.
Thinking about the power of racism to shape penological policy therefore makes obvious and even chilling historical sense. Consider The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, where Franklin Zimring chronicles ‘‘a striking parallel between the practice of capital punishment at the end of the twentieth century and the practice of lynching a century earlier.’’ Zimring notes that 88 percent of the 4,743 lynchings that took place in the US between 1882 and 1968 occurred in the South, whereas 7 percent were in the Midwest, 5 percent were in the West, and .03 percent were in the Northeast. These regional lynching numbers map closely onto execution figures from 1977 to 2000, when 81 percent of US executions occurred in the South, whereas 10 percent were in the Midwest, 8 percent were in the West, and .05 percent were in the Northeast. Zimring argues that the South’s commitment first to extralegal lynchings and then to legal executions stems from a cultural tradition of vigilante justice: ‘‘the citizen who has positive feelings about vigilante values will identify more closely with the punishment process, [and] will think of punishment as a community activity rather than the conduct of a governmental entity separate from community processes.’’ While he leaves the more damning aspects of this theory unstated, we would argue that the tight relationship between lynchings and the death penalty points directly back to slavery. For what are Southern ‘‘vigilante values’’ if not the expression of white supremacy? Indeed, Peter Ehrenhaus and A. Susan Owen have studied the history of vigilante justice and the theatrical aspects of lynchings, concluding that ‘‘public ritual lynching was a performative affirmation of fundamentalist Christian faith in a white supremacist national community.
Article available in full...