Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner, the Death Penalty, and Us

The Christian Science Monitor today ran an excellent article exploring the possible impacts the Tucson shootings will have on public discourse in the United States. The piece prominently features author David Schmid, whose Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture is required reading for anyone interested in what our fascination with the macabre says about us.

One of the central questions the article poses is how Loughner's trial will impact public discourse surrounding the death penalty. The past decade has not been kind to capital punishment, as questions of innocence, cost, and deterrence increasingly prompt states to reconsider the sanction's efficacy (my native state, Illinois, is one gubernatorial signature away from outright abolition). Will Loughner, much like Timothy McVeigh, catalyze a renewal of public support for capital punishment (which has been dropping over the years)? Or will Loughner's trial prompt us to see him as "a parable of despair and rootlessness that gnaw at the edges of the American experiment"?

Wherever this discussion goes, it will be a lengthy and painful one. History is littered with instances of sensationalism from media and "tough-on-crime" pandering from politicians, but might there be another way to make sense of Mr. Loughner?

I'm reminded of powerful words from one of my favorite death penalty scholars, Austin Sarat. He writes, "To oppose [capital punishment] is to carry the burden of explaining why the state should not kill people like Timothy McVeigh, of producing a new theory of responsibility and of responsible punishment, and of humanizing inhuman deeds."

In other words, we have our work cut out for us.

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