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
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
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
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
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
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