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Is America ‘Civilized’? Not as Long as It Sanctions the Death Penalty

History repeats itself: The electric chair in Auburn State Prison, circa 1906. (Picryl)

There is no place in a civilized society for capital punishment. That’s why actual civilized societies around the world do not have, use or endorse capital punishment. Twenty U.S. states ban capital punishment, the latest being Washington, whose Supreme Court ruled Oct. 11 that the ultimate penalty was “invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” A University of Washington study found that black defendants are about four times more likely to get the death penalty in Washington than white offenders. Racial disparity in sentencing is common throughout the criminal justice system nationwide.

People in the federal government and some U.S. states that endorse capital punishment, along with death penalty advocates, actually believe that they are civilized, even though they use an uncivilized method of murder. They have been historically fooled into believing that civilized people do not do uncivilized things to other people. However, no one should doubt that capital punishment and all of the mental, emotional, psychological and physical torture that is done to human beings using this form of killing is uncivilized.

Many people around the world and in this country are dumbfounded by the hypocrisy of this line of thinking, including me. In order to learn the true meaning of the word “civilized,” I had to go to my dictionary, because civilized people do not knowingly first torture and then murder their fellow man or woman; they just don’t. That’s uncivilized.

The death penalty by its very nature is meant to torture people, no matter what its form. This man-made evil, this torturous death, has everyone who is facing it, especially when they are strapped to a chair or a gurney, asking the same question that Jesus Christ asked when he was strapped and nailed to that cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

How do I know? Because I asked God that same question when I was being mentally, emotionally and psychologically tortured in 2004 by the prison guard executioner at the prison where I have been detained, when the next step for me was the last step, the actual physical torture by lethal injection. When a human being is put through a sick state ritual of legal murder by the staff of a prison—that is truly uncivilized.

I speak from experience, from suffering years of post-traumatic stress disorder from that agonizing, near-death experience I went through and survived. So when I looked up the word “civilized” in my dictionary to find its true meaning, I was surprised to discover that it means a different thing than what those death penalty supporters mean when they call themselves civilized. The hypocrisy that those people live with and get away with is unbelievable.

“Civilized,” according to my dictionary, means: 1) to rise from a primitive state to an advanced and ordered stage of cultural development; 2) polite and well mannered; and 3) having or showing a taste for fine arts and gracious living.

Why am I not surprised to see that nowhere in the description of “civilized” are the words “capital punishment” or “death penalty”? “Torture” is not part of the definition either, yet those people who love the death penalty so much that they have done everything humanly possible to keep it in use call themselves civilized.

The truth, in fact, is that capital punishment, torture and all of these man-made evils represent the complete opposite of being civilized. I guess that’s why both Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, spoke out against the death penalty during their walk on earth.

King said: “I do not think that God approves of the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included. Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”

Coretta Scott King said: “An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder.”

Morality and being civilized go hand in hand, just as immorality and being uncivilized go hand in glove.

The United States of America keeps strange company when it comes to the death penalty. It is in league with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq as countries that execute the most prisoners. They say that this country is better or more enlightened or civilized than other countries that execute people—yet they all still have and use the death penalty.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 56 other countries still use the death penalty, including North Korea, Uganda, Botswana, Bangladesh, Somalia, Nigeria and Chad, to name a few (see the full list here).

The civilized countries that do not execute people number 141 and include Turkey, Croatia, Germany, France, Uzbekistan and Portugal.

This is an important point, because it truly speaks not only to the hypocrisy concerning the death penalty in this country, but also to how this hypocrisy is rationalized. I have learned that the three main ingredients that have made capital punishment a mainstay in this country are racism, fundamentalist religion and politics.

This is how certain racist, religious fundamentalists and political people, whether they are leaders or not, have fooled masses of people into believing in and supporting the death penalty. They use the victim factor—to support families of victims in seeking revenge against the accused and/or convicted. They don’t encourage the families to seek forgiveness or peace or anything of that nature. They fool them into believing that the only thing they need for closure is to torture and murder someone.

This line of argument has been preached to certain congregations and spoken to certain constituents throughout the history of this country. People have been fooled into believing and supporting a system that is against everything that humanity is about, and against everything for which their God stands.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. America, you have been fooled so many times that the shame is really on you! You don’t see that the death penalty is primitive, as in belonging to an early stage of human development.

One cannot call himself or herself civilized while practicing primitive behavior, and executing people, especially the innocent, is as primitive as one gets. Support for the death penalty within this country is lower now than it almost has ever been. I like to believe that’s because the truly civilized people in this country are standing up and speaking out against this horrific crime against humanity.

History doesn’t lie, nor does the truth. I believe that if Jesus Christ came back to this earth, as most death penalty-supporting Christians believe that he someday will, he would take those nails all over again after he saw what was being done to people in his name. He would die again to show people that in his dying, in his being tortured and murdered, no one else should have that happen to them.

When will the foolish, uncivilized death penalty advocates who say they believe in God start believing in what his crucifixion was really all about?

Kevin Cooper
Kevin Cooper is a death row inmate at California's San Quentin Prison. In 1985, he was convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder and sentenced to death in a trial in which evidence that might have exonerated him…
Kevin Cooper

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