As a new round of hearings approaches for Philadelphia's most publicized death-row inmate, Mumia Abu-Jamal, we can expect lively debate not only on the specifics of his case, but on the death penalty itself. Indeed, many people who don't know much about the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981 are drawn to the case because the radical journalist and onetime Black Panther has emerged as a vocal critic of execution. Many of my friends and fellow journalists side with capital punishment's foes, arguing that execution is, among other things, inherently racist.
By supporting the death penalty, both in Abu-Jamal's case and in general, I court that most dreaded of epithets: white racist. But let me ask the anti-death-penalty crowd a simple question. If a white criminal murdered someone I care about, do you think I would not want the depraved murderer to pay with his life?
Retribution is an important theme in many cultures. In the new American film Death Sentence, the original Mad Max and the Yakuza films of Japan, you will find scenarios in which murderers, and the bereaved relatives who seek retribution, are of the same race. The avengers are responding to a very human need for retribution, catharsis and at least partial closure and deliverance from their abyss of sorrow and rage.
The death penalty meets this demand while obviating the need for vigilantism. It serves an end that is not racist either in principle or in practice. Look, for example, at a case from South Dakota, in which two young white thugs went to the home of a friend, tied him up and robbed him. They made the victim drink hydrochloric acid, kicked him in the head repeatedly, stabbed him about the face and neck and made him strip naked outside in freezing weather. While the victim pleaded for his life, the duo tortured him for three hours until he died. It was hardly surprising that the victim's mother sought the death penalty; having the killers live comfortably for decades at taxpayers' expense seemed inadequate. One of the killers spent six years on death row, exhausted his appeals and was executed earlier this summer. White skin gave him no advantage.
Compare another recent case, in which the state of Virginia executed a white man, after six years on death row, for killing a bank guard, with that of minority inmates who have spent 10, 20, or, in Abu-Jamal's case, about 25 years pursuing appeals.
So what about "adverse impact"? the liberals ask. This is a legally and philosophically bogus concept suggesting that a law or policy's justness can be determined through a demographic breakdown of the people who are committing crimes that subject them to that law or policy. If we pursue the logic to its extreme, then laws that incarcerate people for murder, rape and robbery are wrong because, unfortunately, more minorities are going to jail thanks to those laws. In the interests of justice, we'll have to make it legal to murder, rape and steal.
Seriously, it is sad that a disproportionate number of minorities are committing felonies, and we need to change that. But the anti-death-penalty crowd must weigh this fact against another consideration: The criminals who are being punished via capital punishment and other tough measures are preying on a much larger number of law-abiding blacks and Hispanics.
Indeed, many of those who calling for the toughest measures are blacks. The black journalist and commentator Stanley Crouch said in a recent New York Daily News column that the black communities he has gotten to know over the past 30 years have grown tired of feeling "oppressed by crime" and would like to see the criminals "removed from the world."
Scenarios like Abu-Jamal's, in which the killer and victim are of different races, need scrutiny on a case-by-case basis. What the supporters of this vicious cop killer won't tell you is that his original attorney had to recuse himself from the case because Abu-Jamal insisted on a crazed defense along the lines that he was right to shoot the cop for political reasons.
We can never fully compensate a bereaved family for the loss of a life. But they must have sympathy, support and the fullest possible sense of catharsis and retribution; it is the least we can do to help them recover and adjust. If we do not execute the murderers, we fail in our duty.
Michael Washburn is a journalist and editor who's written about Mumia for CP.