Thursday, July 12, 2007

Last night, I had a very odd dream. And it was very affective; that is, I was certain to have a strong emotional reaction to the events. I was in Florida, eating lunch with a man who was sentenced to death. We ate in a different place than where he would die. The strange part is, we had to hurry, so he wouldn't be late. He was a black man (knowing me, probably innocent) but I never said his name. The building we entered was not a prison; it looked like a courthouse, more than a little like the Supreme Court. As my friend entered, I said, "Whatever happens, I love you."

Sister Helen Prejean was there. She entered amid a media circus, as the celebrated author, whose book became the film "Dead Man Walking." We entered next, myself, and my friend's lawyer. We were led to a very small room, barely big enough for all the witnesses. In fact, there was no separation between us and the participants. I sat in the second row, and the first row was scarcely five feet away. Prejean said sarcastically, "Thanks for using the electric chair, Florida." All the people assisting or being executed sat in a row very close together. My mother sat three chairs away from the condemned man. Why she was there, and why she had a role, I cannot say. The technician/executioner was flippant and silly. She acted like my friend was getting a flu shot. The back wall was freshly painted white. In fact, I saw paint cans against that wall. The chair itself was heavily padded; it looked like those stretchers they use when someone has a potential head injury. That is, his head was strapped in tightly against the pad. When the tech asked that the equipment be made ready, I expected a loud surge in power. Instead, it sounded like a computer turning on. When she recited the words about executing the death warrant in her inappropriately glib fashion, I remember thinking that it didn't go on long enough. One more interesting thing: Electrodes were at the temples of the man's head. They could have either been for monitoring, or could have been the devices which would deliver death. Right before they began to kill him, I woke up.

Prejean's book is one I just read. It is indeed a moving story, regardless of one's position on the issue. Actually, Prejean's moral certainty is off-putting. I'm opposed to the death penalty in the United States (ostensibly on her side) and I found her moralizing unpersuasive. I have found from reading accounts of its process that it is too ritualized to entirely dismiss the idea that we enjoy watching people die. Still, she's at her best showing the humanity of these killers, never once entertaining the notion that they did not do what was alleged. (She does argue mitigation in one instance.) She's not good trying to convince me that executing a murderer is inherently wrong. Throughout the account, she mentions every anti-death penalty argument I've ever heard, seemingly hoping that one will stick. The sociological and process arguments are best; the ethical/scriptural arguments are weak. And that is tragic for a nun. Her personal faith is evident, but I found myself wondering which Jesus she serves. The one she describes sounds like one heck of an activist, a progressive's dream. I can't say she didn't do her job; she speaks of repentance and forgiveness of sins often. But I have a hard time believing that Jesus is angry about Reagan cutting the federal budget, for instance (Chapter 1). She is to be commended for visiting the families of victims. She smartly avoids lecturing them in their grief. It's a good read, and the movie is good, too. It's a story so interesting that even Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon avoid screwing it up.
As for the odd elements of the dream, I wondered, "Is this the future, when all pretense of dignity, all notions of legitmate retributive justice have gone away?" There was no minister or priest, there was no prayer of invocation or mercy; there were paint cans in the room. The whole event took maybe three minutes. What a scary vision!