The witnesses to the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams were appropriately somber. Ending the life of a human being is not something to be undertaken lightly. The way the state handles such deaths reflects a certain consciousness of how somber the responsibility is.
In earlier times, the executioner was hooded, thus retaining some degree of anonymity and the conceit that he was not personally responsible, that he was merely the instrument of a higher power, the state or the king. In our time, with lethal injection, the procedure is made as close to antiseptic as possible, stripped of the sometimes-grisly results of beheading or even the electric chair. The small execution chamber appears almost sterile, and anonymous technicians handle the details. With mandatory judicial reviews, so many people have had a hand in the death decision that it is almost impossible to find any one person wholly responsible.
It is important to remember, however, that the state is not suprahuman but an institution created by human beings to handle a limited number of functions, chiefly protecting those under its authority from invasion, violence and crime.
It is easy to forget that the state is merely human. California Gov. Schwarzenegger came close to forgetting it in his otherwise excellent message in which he declined to grant clemency to Williams.
“Is Williams’ redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise?” the governor wrote. “Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption.”
We are all entitled to an opinion about redemption, but with all due respect it is not up to the governor — in California or Texas or any other state — to decide. Those who believe in a God or higher power governing the universe believe redemption is in God’s hands. For those who do not believe in God, it is difficult to see a logical case for any single person’s opinion about redemption being more valid than anyone else’s.
The governor acted in accordance with the laws of California and the U.S. Constitution and his best understanding of the evidence. That is enough to justify his decision. His opinion about redemption is of passing interest, but it should not have been the decisive factor. If it was, it comes close to seeing the state as more godlike than, in fact, it is or should be.
The debate over the death penalty will continue, with sincere people making respectable arguments on both sides. We will not attempt to resolve it here.
It seems unlikely, given the layers of judicial and executive review that have occurred, that Williams’ supporters will be able to prove, as he claimed and they have promised, that he was innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted. If they do, however, that will make his execution a tragedy of large dimension, but not decisive in the ongoing debate over the death penalty.
Our hope is that the extraordinary publicity surrounding this execution will remind those engaged in that debate just how serious the issue is. This is not something to be decided by slogans, demonstrations or offhand opinions. Let us engage it with substance and seriousness, with respect for the opinions of others and the sober reflection it deserves.