Of Monsters and Vampires: People Who Kill People (and the People Who Kill Them)

Tim Wise


mother lied to me. She told me when I was a boy, so as to allay my fears to the

contrary, that there were no such things as vampires; that there were not, in

real life, those whose lust for human blood drove their every waking moment. And

this was a lie.


know this now, because lately I have been seeing them everywhere: not the

traditional "undead" associated with Anne Rice novels, but the

all-too-human vampires who stalk my state, and are planning to launch a serial

killing spree as I write this: a spree that would entail executing the 95 men

and women on Tennessee’s death row by way of something called, in appropriate

Orwellian terms: "therapeutic intravenous intervention."


a forty-year hiatus during which time Tennessee failed to carry out a single

death sentence, the vampires finally claimed their first victim, and can hardly

wait to draw blood again. The April execution of Robert Glen Coe, who had to be

fed sixteen different psychotropic drugs to render him sane enough for the state

to kill, has emboldened them; turned many into something I no longer can

recognize, and yet, can recognize all too clearly: and that’s the most

frightening thing of all. For in them I see and hear the vengeful looks and

words of my fellow citizens–mostly decent human beings–who are so afraid of

crime and violence, and so desperate to create the illusion of safety, they have

themselves turned to violence, and the process has rendered many of them the

equivalent of kids in a candy shop.


are told by those seeking to rev up the killing machine that those on death row

are monsters, who deserve to die for their brutality. And indeed, some among the

condemned have committed truly heinous atrocities, about which none should

remain sanguine.


the question has never been, "do killers deserve to die," but rather,

does the state deserve to kill: a different question, requiring a different

deliberation. For if we believe these "monsters" thought so little of

their victims that they treated them as disposable garbage, then how ironic is

it that we would ratify this mindset of human disposability, give it voice and

the sanction of the state; that we would second that emotion, and seek to take

out yet more of our so-called "trash" in this all-too-familiar manner.

And all to show how much we respect human life, which makes as much sense as

stealing a stereo from the guy who takes your car, just to show how much we

respect personal property.


sad we have come to this point; and even sadder that we have done so by lying to

ourselves about the good this act will supposedly do for the victims’ families.

Having been through a hell unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t lost a loved one to

a senseless act of violence, these folks seem to believe–one supposes they

almost have to believe–that peace will descend upon them like warm blankets

after their child or spouse’s killer is taken from the world. But it’s not true,

and despite what the Vampires representing the state might tell us, I think we

know it.


is never closure for the families of murder victims. Their loved ones were too

precious for the loss of them to be healed by the ending of another’s life. To

imply otherwise is to cheapen the significance of the victims’ lives. It is to

imply that the carrying out of revenge can numb the pain of losing someone so

meaningful; that the hole left in a family’s collective heart by murder can be

filled somehow by another corpse.


new corpses require new holes; and in this case the new holes will be those

created in yet more innocent families: namely, those of the condemned. After an

execution, they feel the same kind of loss as the families of those their loved

ones killed, and they receive not one-tenth the sympathy for their pain as the

latter; and the mothers and fathers and children of those murdered will still

feel the same loss they always felt; and there will be twice as much emptiness

as before, and exponentially more pain, and not a bit more safety for the people

of Tennessee, or any other state engaged in this process.


think we know this too: that it isn’t about safety, or filling emptiness left by

the loss of a loved one. We know it’s about payback, and deep down we realize

there’s something wrong with that as a motivation for human action. So we try to

get as much distance as possible between ourselves and the killing process. We

dehumanize the person we seek to execute, so as to make it possible for us to

kill him or her: for if we allow ourselves to see them as our potential

brothers, sisters, or children, we might be paralyzed by a spontaneous

combustion of conscience, and become unable to do this thing.


most states kill in the middle of the night, when everyone is sleeping, dreaming

sweet dreams, undisturbed by what is going on with their money and in their

names. They can read about it after the fact, in the newspapers, where it will

take on the immediate feel of archival history, as opposed to what it might feel

like if these things were done mid-day, during lunch, so that busy working folks

might have to confront the awful truth over that cold third cup of coffee, that

stale sandwich from the office vending machine, or their daily e-mail routine.


in Tennessee we passed legislation to keep the identity of the executioner

secret, as if there is something to be ashamed of in this process. But why be

ashamed, if, as we’re told this is such a noble enterprise in which we’re

engaged? One would think we’d be holding job fairs for the position of

executioner, and that folks would be falling over themselves to get such a

prestigious and important gig, and placing it at the top of their resume when

they got it. But no, we keep it secret, because deep down, we know there is

something wrong here.


just here, in Tennessee, but elsewhere too: in places like Idaho and Utah, which

still use the firing squad: five guys with rifles, one of which shoots blanks so

as to offer each of the five the plausible deniability of thinking that maybe

they didn’ t really kill anyone. "Maybe it was shooters one through four

who had the bullets,’ whispers the fifth man as he sits at home drinking a beer

after the deed has been done, ‘while I was shooting blanks. And so now I can

rest better at night."


why be restless if what one had been engaged in was noble? Clearly, we keep the

blank gun because it allows doubt, and doubt vanquishes guilt, and we hate to

feel guilty.


our innocence throughout this process is something we take very seriously: thus,

the need to dehumanize the condemned. This was never clearer to me than it

became after the first time I visited death row in Tennessee.


was a guard there in his mid-twenties, whose short time on the row had been

insufficient to turn him into one of the unfeeling, brutal types we often hear

about. But he was working on it: working hard to become as cold, and harsh, and

bureaucratically efficient as any of his older counterparts.


short of the passage of time, the only way he could accomplish this–one

suspects it is the only way anyone could–was to mentally remove himself from

the solemnity of the process in which he was engaged; to remove his charges from

the common circle of humanity of which he is a part.


an awful thing to watch one do this: to leap the ideological and emotional

chasms necessary to cut oneself off from the lives of others so easily. But

there it was. And it was terrifying to witness: a man explaining in one breath

what a great artist one of the guys on the row is, and how another writes

beautiful poetry, and how much he has in common with yet another; and then in

the next breath explaining how none of that matters, and how he can’t let

himself think about it for too long, because he "has a job to do," he

says, and "you can’t allow yourself to get too close," he says,

"to forget why they’re here," he says, "because they’ll lie to

you," he says, "they’ll con you," he says, and "you have to

remember that."


a man to have to divorce himself in this fashion from the sense of a common

humanity and to compartmentalize his emotions so as to put bread on his own

table, and to do his job, as he put it, is a terrible thing, an undignified

thing. It is to make him a victim of this same system; to dehumanize him along

with the men he will guard until they are put to death, or until he cracks,

forgetting for a minute that he’s not to treat them as people, but rather as zoo

animals. And if he forgets this one too many times, he will be transferred

somewhere else, replaced by someone who won’t have the same problem.


there is no shortage of those who would be all too willing to take his place and

do the job in the more traditional and brutal manner. They are the folks who

call in to talk shows and explain in a fashion so detailed it would boggle the

mind of even the most creative screenwriter, exactly what they would like to do

to those on death row. They are the folks who offer to peel off the skin of

those they have deemed "monsters," layer by layer, then glue it back

together with permanent adhesive, then rip it off again, or who threaten to

slice off the testicles of some of the men, or sodomize them with baseball bats

covered in nails. These are but some of the voices of the kind souls who want to

make clear how much they abhor crime, violence, and deviance, and who see

nothing at all criminal, violent or deviant in their own sadistic rage. They

would make fine prison guards, all of them, especially in a system as sick as

this one.


isn’t it, that the same folks who view government so cynically when it comes to

taxes, mail delivery, road construction, education, or health care, and insist

the state is incapable of addressing these issues with equanimity and fairness,

somehow find it possible to believe this same state can dispense justice, and

even the ultimate punishment, without a hint of impropriety, bias, or error.


disturbing of all, once dead it becomes ever more necessary for people to

rationalize an inmate’s execution. For we want nothing more it seems than to

believe we live in Kansas, rather than the twisted, distorted land of Oz in

which we find ourselves presently: a place where, just as in the movie, folks

believe what they want and need to believe, and pay no attention to what lies

behind the curtain.


Wise is a Nashville-based activist, writer and lecturer. He can be reached at

[email protected]



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