Under Penalty of Death

I feel insane, coming out of the woods for this particular thing. I’ve seen 12 amazing plays, I’ve got two amazing kids, and we’ve had a Christmas and birthdays and all sorts of shit, but I’m jumping out to talk about the death of Osama bin Laden.

I will make this short.

I, like many, many other people, have a feeling of ambivalence about the celebration of this man’s death. I don’t have any feelings of ambivalence about the death itself, I believe it is a good thing, I am glad that he’s been removed from the equation as a person of enormous influence and financial power. but the celebrations surrounding his death have given me pause and I want to explain why.

When we discovered the news, Jordana and I shrugged and nodded. It was late, we had meant to go to bed, and the news meant we were missing a couple of hours of sleep that we both needed. We were here, in New York, on September 11th, and we’ve been here ever since. We were here for the plane landing in the river, for the Republican Convention, for nine more double shafts of light in the sky, for the insane roller coaster of governors and senators, for Spider Man Turn Off the Dark and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. We’re New Yorkers, the attack was huge, but we’ve lived big lives, all of us, ever since and that one action and this one man don’t define who we are.

So much has been done, so many questionable actions taken, in response to this one man, and now he’s dead. But his death isn’t gonna stop one side or the other from using him in the worst way. His followers will martyr him and re-visit him in a way that he hasn’t been in years – the fact that we are all sitting around talking about his crimes to our children also means that other children are hearing the same stories told with hero-worship. And those who rally against him, blindly and with fury, are still able to justify things like torture and the curtailing of civil liberties and building an empire of foreign police states because his death doesn’t change what he masterminded.

So, I guess I don’t want people celebrating because I don’t want him to be important again. I hated the ideas of his followers only slightly less than I hated the terror he inspired in our own people. Terrorists, by definition, are trying to inspire terror, so the more scared we are, the more they win. And I’m sickened by how scared we’ve been. The celebrations over his death just feel too much like the nightlight being turned on in the closet, a small child’s exhalation that the boogeyman is now gone.

But, the reason for this blog is to talk for just a second about how this relates to the death penalty. I’ve been against the death penalty in a very muted way for about twenty years, ever since my brother Ian and I had a long conversation about it in 1991. There were a lot of reasons given, the fallibility of our government, the message it sends to our citizens about the existence of justifiable murder, the cost of keeping an inmate in prison for life vs. the cost of guaranteeing he won’t be killed without due process, etc.

But the argument (which will not include any mention of Hitler, as my brother’s blog also avoids) that most affected me is Jeffrey Dahmer. The man was indescribable. His insanity, and his actions, everything about him had the stink of someone that needed to be removed from human society. But while in prison, he spent a huge amount of time meeting with doctors and clergy. An enormous amount of information was gleaned by studying his brain and his behavior. He eventually became a born-again Christian and was baptized, becoming a staunch supporter of Christianity, until he was finally murdered by a fellow inmate coming out of the chapel.

So, I guess, the question is this – What if bin Laden had been arrested, tried, convicted, and forced to live out his life in prison? What if he had met daily with doctors and imams and priests and clerics? He lived the sheltered life of the unbelievably wealthy, what if he had had a chance to live simply, under the constant threat of humiliation, but also cut off and forced to look at his own existence?

It’s virtually impossible that any good would come from any of this, I know. I’m not naive. But the important distinction is understanding that death is the end of hope. Osama bin Laden would have spent the rest of his life sowing hate and murder throughout the Arab world, distorting Islam and creating terror, I know that. But there is a chance he could have been a force for peace.

When I was a teenager, there was no hope that any member of the Republican White House would be pro-choice or pro-gay marriage. None. And now, it’s a small step, but Laura Bush is openly pro-choice, and she and the entire Cheney family are pro-gay marriage. Time has passed, and there seems to be a shuffling, staggering walk toward progressive ideals (which is why, I suppose, we call it ‘progressive’). There is an infinitesimal chance that bin Laden could have been a voice for peace. And had he been, he would have been one of the most powerful voices in history.

I am not such a fool that I think it could have happened. His death is completely good, there was almost no chance of him ever doing anything with his life that would help the world or humanity. But if you want an answer as to how you can be anti-death penalty and still pro-bin Laden’s death, it’s this – the hope that he might use his power to make the world better is now done. His death is the end of hope.

And though his death is good, fomenting nationalism is not. Being happy about the end of this terrible life is good, but re-igniting the horrible feelings of the last decade, no matter what country you live in, is bad. He’s dead, but everything he wanted, from the attack on the WTC to the war between America and Islam, is still happening, and until we can find a way to stop that, I don’t feel like celebrating.