When Culture Meets Capital Punishment

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The highly publicized, highly contentious, state-sanctioned execution of Troy Davis on September 21, 2011, reinvigorated America’s longstanding conversation about the death penalty. A Gallup poll released this morning found that only 61 percent of Americans approve of using the death penalty for convicted murderers, a 39-year low. Our country seems to be the cusp of cultural change when it comes to capital punishment. Do you know where you stand?

It’s okay if you don’t. The death penalty is a morally complex issue, tangled up by competing threads of history, media, the political process, religion, class, and–last, but not least–emotions.

Sensing a need for national conversation about the death penalty, ThinkProgress blogger Alyssa Rosenberg launched “The Pop Culture and Death Penalty Project“–a six-month-long exploration of the intersections between art and crime, morality and mortality. Beginning next Wednesday, October 19, she’ll be hosting discussions about books, television shows, and films that deal with the topic in one way or another. Subjects include Richard Wright’s Native Son, 1938 film Angels with Dirty Faces, and a few episodes of HBO drama Deadwood.

Unfortunately, Rosenberg didn’t include any readings from the alternative press. I hope to fill in that gap for you, highlighting a few articles that tell the human stories of criminals, victims, and everyone caught in the fray.

  • Could you forgive the man who shot you in the face? The title says it all in this tale of forgiveness, bureaucracy, and racism by Michael J. Mooney for D Magazine. Rais Bhuiyan confronts his assailant ten years later and tries to stop his execution.
  • “The executioner is the one that suffers,” says Jerry Givens, a former executioner for the state of Virginia, in this profile from The Daily Beast.
  • A writer for The Good Men Project describes the awkward feeling one gets when reporting on an execution.
  • One by one, countries are ditching the death penalty, according to an article in The Economist. The West African country of Benin is the latest to abolish capital punishment permanently.
  • “Humanism cannot support the death penalty,” begins a recent moral case against capital punishment put out by the Center for Inquiry. “Humanism stands for a social ethics of equality, individual human rights, justice for everyone, and government that defend their citizens. Death penalty supporters appeal to these principles, too. But they narrowly interpret them to justify government killings, and they coldly apply them to the weakest among us.”
  • Utne Reader has reprinted a number of fantastic articles about the death penalty in the past few years, including “Give Me Death,” in which a lawyer explains why his client volunteered to be executed; “Thou Shalt Not Kill. Unless . . .,” in which a counts down to an execution in Texas, one day at a time; and “At Death’s Door,” an interview with long-time death-penalty activist and Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean.
  • We wouldn’t want to forget the classics. George Orwell’s 1931 essay “A Hanging,” in which he describes the execution of a criminal by the British Imperial Police.

Sources: Center for Inquiry, D Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Economist, The Good Men ProjectThinkProgress

Image from Marion Doss was taken at the “instant bullets from a French firing squad hit a Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans. This execution took place in Rennes, France on November 21, 1944.” Licensed under Creative Commons.

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