Monday, April 27, 2015

Chasing the Illusion of Closure: Capital Punishment and the Aurora Shootings

I think most of us have felt it: hunger for the death of someone who's done something awful.

The trial of James Holmes, who shot up an Aurora, CO movie theater not quite three years ago, is about to begin. Driving to work this morning, I listened to an NPR report that included brief interviews with the parents of one of the shooting victims--a young man who chose to shield his girlfriend from the bullets. I imagined what it would be like to be the father of that man, to learn how he died saving the life of his beloved. I imagined it was my own son, several years from now.

I felt the hunger for death. But the father and mother of the dead young man were at best torn in their feelings about the impending trial. Whatever their hungers, they knew that the trial would not restore to them their son. They knew that their deepest longing wasn't for death but for restored life. And nothing anyone did to James Holmes could satisfy that desire.

They wanted closure. They knew the trial wouldn't give it. They knew the death penalty wouldn't give it. They knew that the delay in the trial was making it harder--was ensuring that whatever steps they'd made towards moving on were threatened by the demand by the court that they now go back. Perhaps they even understood that the court delays were in part caused by the death penalty itself. In cases like this, defense attorneys see it as their job to prevent their client from being put to death--and every delay is another day of life. Perhaps they knew that if James Holmes is sentenced to die, the appeals could continue for decades.

But still there is the hunger for death. And support for the death penalty in America is largely fueled by that hunger. There are other things driving that support, of course: views on deterrence, more dispassionate ideas of what justice demands. But the hunger for death that we call vengeance is what leads death penalty supporters to set up a grill outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester whenever there's an execution...and fry bacon as a human being dies.

Revenge stories play on that hunger. I can remember seeing some of the Death Wish movies as a teen, and feeling that distinctive kind of pulse-pounding satisfaction as Bronson's character pursued his murderous vigilantism.

But I've always been suspicious of that feeling. If it has a cognitive content, it's this: While a person's premature death is ordinarily one of the worst things there is, it is rendered intrinsically good when the one who dies is a murderous villain. Intrinsically good. Not a tragic necessity, but good in itself.

It's as if the villain's death can somehow fix what the villain has done. But of course it can't. A murderer's victim stays dead. The hole left in the world by the loss of someone beloved can't be filled by tearing another life out of the stream of history.

While hate can flood into the place where love once lived, hate is a poor substitute for love. It can't complete you the way love can. It can't expand your sense of self, making you bigger than your narrow ego. It can't bring joy. It doesn't gesture to the transcendent.

In the grip of hate, you don't feel as if you're on the cusp of understanding the meaning of it all.

Loss can lead to hate, which sparks the hunger for death. But feeding that hunger doesn't restore what was lost. That can't be done. What can be done is this: We can endeavor to live so that the loss doesn't kill what is best in us.

What's best in us is the power to love. And the cancer-spread of hate is the thing that most surely kills in us this power. To indulge the hunger for death is therefore inimical to realizing the most significant sort of closure. What brings real closure isn't death but forgiveness, because forgiveness is the victory of our power to love over the urgings of hate.

At least that's how I see it. And this is why I don't believe in the death penalty. I understand the death penalty, at least to the extent that someone who hasn't had a loved one murdered can understand it. I can vicariously appreciate the emotions that could drive someone to long for the death of the person who's torn their lives apart.

But closure is about healing. It isn't about feeding hungers born of hate.

I've heard the stories of people who have sought revenge, chasing the closure they think they'll find when the person who wronged them suffers in kind. Some of those stories were told to me by killers in prison, when I volunteered as a nonviolence facilitator in intensive prison workshops. Weeping, they told me how they hungered for the death of those who'd wronged them. Full of rage and hate, they struck out--sometimes at the real target, sometimes at a vicarious victim who represented those who'd tortured and tormented them.

But the act didn't bring the closure they were hungering for. The hunger for death tells us that closure will come by turning a living human into a corpse. But the hunger lies. It misdirects our energies, obsessively driving us away from what will really satisfy.

Some of these murderers eventually realized the truth. Some of them saw the futility of their path and knew that letting go of hate and vengeance was the real path to healing. Some realized that until they forgave the father who abused them, the drug-addicted mother who neglected them, the pawns of the system that marginalized them because of the color of their skin, they would have no closure from their anguished past. Rather, they'd be ruled by it. To move on, you must let go. And hate is about clinging on tight.

These are lessons I've learned from murderers, from the stories they've told me. And it didn't miss my attention that these murderers, when they killed, were motivated by the same psychological forces that drive our cultural enthusiasm for the death penalty.

The people who fry bacon outside the prison walls during an execution are closer in spirit to the one being killed than are those who stand a candle-lit vigil to oppose what's being done. The latter repudiate the spirit that led the murderer to kill. The former, unwittingly, stand in solidarity with the killer they revile.

They have allowed the spirit of hate, which tore their lives apart, to be a spirit that helps define them. This is like seeking to close a wound with a knife rather than with stitches.

I don't mean to suggest that forgiveness is easy. Nor do I think that victims can let go and release hate right away. I think that there are things we can do as a society to make it easier for the victims of horror to move forward with their lives, and that we aren't doing those things.

There are things the perpetrator of horror can do to make forgiveness a more real possibility for the victims. I think they have a duty to do these things, but to do them requires that they confront what they've done honestly and without excuses or illusions. And there are things a justice system can do to help make this happen.

Victims need to understand why. They need to know that the why wasn't good enough, and that the perpetrator knows it wasn't good enough. They need to witness the perpetrator's genuine cry of remorse, the anguished realization that they are responsible for horror. And they need to see the perpetrator take on penance, a sincere project of reform and restitution that can never restore what was lost but can express the depth of their remorse through endless efforts to do good.

I say "need," but I have witnessed victims of horrific abuse perform the miracle of forgiveness in the absence of these things. I've seen it happen in prisons: Inmates who were violently molested for years, forced to abuse siblings, thrown into foster care only to be sexually molested by foster parents--these same victims found ways to let go of hate and to forgive. I have seen the trajectory of lives change. I have followed their course in stunned wonder.

To witness it is to witness a miracle. It is a reason I believe in God.

I'm tempted to say, "If criminals in prison can do it, then so can we." But public policies can't be built around miracles. And such miracles happen most often after people hit bottom. So I suppose these miracles are more common for those imprisoned for their crimes than they are for the victims of crime who are trying to move on.

What we need is a criminal justice system that focuses more of its attention on meeting the needs of victims. And to do that, we have to stop assuming that victims' needs are best met just by punishing offenders. Victims have a right to confront perpetrators, to demand the things described above. They have a right to the help of trained facilitators who have the skills to challenge offenders to really hear their victims--without excuses or rationalizations, without hiding behind emotional walls.

In short, they have a right to something like the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program. The death penalty offers the illusion of closure. But the deeper truth is this: What victims get from the execution of a loved one's murderer is not closure but the opportunity to finally begin to pursue closure--an opportunity that has been deferred because they've believed that erasing the murderer from the world is what was needed. But they begin this pursuit of closure when much of what can help provide it--a confrontation with the killer culminating in the killer's remorse and repentance--is no longer possible, because the killer is dead. And so all they can hope for is the miracle.

For the survivors and families of the Aurora shooting, I wish for something more satisfying than the death of James Holmes, than years of deferring the search for closure while they wait for an execution that will not meet their needs. And if our justice system can't or won't help them pursue their deepest needs, then I hope they get the miracle.

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