Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A few words on loss, lethal injections and love.

It occurs to me that it is often a bad idea to look for closure in things. And it may be an especially bad idea to look for closure in an execution. Sometimes all you do is expose yourself to greater pain.

My perhaps-obvious impetus for writing this occurred last night at 9:05 p.m.
that's when the state of Virginia began pumping a sequence of three lethal chemicals into John Muhammad, the D.C. sniper. He was pronounced dead at 9:11. By now you probably know my stance on executionsI think they're barbaricso I won't belabor that aspect here. My reason for writing today concerns the family members of Muhammad's ten victims who attended the execution.

I'm sure that, in part, they simply came to see Muhammad die, and thus to derive
a certain vengeance-based satisfaction that appropriately bookended the death of their loved ones: the familiar "eye for an eye." But I'm thinking that many of them also hoped for something from Muhammad himself...some statement, maybe a quick, mouthed "I'm sorry" (as others have done in such circumstances), at the very least a sympathetic nod towards the one-way glass behind which family members sat. They got none of it. Muhammad remained quiet and calm"stoic," in the words of one media witnessthroughout. He said nothing, and didn't even so much as acknowledge onlookers. In fact, based on descriptions of the death chamber, it sounds to me as if he remained with his face positioned slightly away from the gallery the whole time, until he just closed his eyes and surrendered to his fate.

And so I'm left wondering what the family members will take away from that. This was supposed to be the final, punctuating memory
the classic closure elementthat allows them to move on. Will they see it that way? Or will they always remember it as one last slap in the face, a coup de grace: John Muhammad killed their loved ones, then at the end, he snubbed them, too.

This may sound like a strange and even graceless segue, but I'm reminded of the two times in my life when I have phoned a woman who hurt me, hoping for some explanation, anything to help me put the experience in perspective and let the whole thing go. In both cases something was said (or left unsaid) during that conversation that made things worse
in one case much worse. All I did was open myself up to an even greater sense of disquiet. Because when you put your fragile emotions in the hands of people who didn't have your best interests at heart to begin withthe very people who are responsible for your sufferingyou're just asking for more trouble.

Closure is overrated.


RevRon's Rants said...

"Because when you put your fragile emotions in the hands of people who didn't have your best interests at heart to begin with—the very people who are responsible for your suffering—you're just asking for more trouble."

As it turns out, Steve, this is a lesson I'm learning (or at least being challenged to learn) right now (and no, it's not about Connie). We have to ask ourselves why we invest so much in people who don't honor that investment. At least with our friends and romantic interests, we have more of a choice in the matter.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Amen. And good luck with the challenge you're facing.

Anonymous said...

It's so funny to see you big tough guys sniveling about fragility. Too much.

Elizabeth said...

Amen, Steve (to your conclusion, not to your "amen" directed at Rev above -- though that too :).

And to Anon (ay, cannot resist): big tough guys have feelings too, yanno.

Anonymous said...

What you don't mention that I thought you might is that most people who attend executions want the killer to say "I'm sorry" so later when they're interviewed they can s**t all over it and talk about how they didn't think it was sincere and they don't forgive him, hope he rots in hell, etc.

Maybe this sounds mean spirited but personally I'm glad he didn't give them that satisfation. Touche John Muhammad!

Elizabeth said...

One more quick thought on closure: like forgiveness, it is something that we usually make dependent on other people's reactions -- specifically, other people's ability and/or willingness to express remorse for their hurtful behavior.

When this reaction is not coming (not at all, or not as fast as we would like it), we add to our own suffering by waiting for it.

The truth is, it may never come. For lots of reasons.

Overrated, yes. And/or unrealistic.

Anonymous said...

'Overrated, yes. And/or unrealistic.'

Touche, Elizabeth.
Having sought "closure" unsuccessfully for many years, I reluctantly concluded that it was another empty signifier, basically meaningless.
I was actually looking for some acknowledgement from the other persons for my feelings of hurt, grief and loss, but none was forthcoming. 'Sorry' would have helped and I wasn't looking to crow over the apology, just for the acknowledgement that I was also a human being with feelings.
When I gave up on the hunt for "closure" I could forget about the people who had hurt me and get on with my life.

Avoiding reopening the wound and the passage of time then acted as the closest to "closure" that is possible. (at least for me)
Different for different folks of course, but I like being able to walk away.

Elizabeth said...

It's a familiar experience, Anon (and all). I don't know anyone who has not had it in their life. Even little kids know how important the admission of guilt and remorse is to social interactions. That's why we hear so often, "But, mom, he has not said SORRY! Mom, make him say sorry! Say sorry, or else!"

That's why moms (and dads, too, though usually more reluctantly -- in my experience, so don't take it personally, all dads out there) insist that little Jimmy apologize to his sister for smashing her doll (even if Jimmy is gloating and not in the mood for apologies).

Those three little words, "I am sorry," have an awesome power -- to restore civility, prevent a greater harm, diffuse tension, and melt away resentments, all at the expense of one's (usually overinflated) ego. Most of us know it -- that's why we are so stingy with them, not willing (and some not able) to relinquish that power and/or share it with others.

So sometimes you just have to walk away without hearing them.

RevRon's Rants said...

Anonymous - I find it ironic that you describe other people's discussion of disappointment as "sniveling," yet seem unaware that you're doing the same thing. A claim to be "over" something that carries as strong an expression of bitterness as your own somehow lacks credibility.

As to the "tough guy" description, it's something that's taken me many years to outgrow (for the most part). It's not a place to which I'd willingly return, because it's easier to shed a tear myself than to live with having hurt others, some very badly. The "macho" image is after all, a sign of deep fear.

Anonymous said...

Clueless as I am, I had no idea that victims' family members (or anyone else, for that matter) witnessed executions until a friend browbeat me into watching "The Green Mile." I was more sickened by that than by anything else I've ever seen. In the words of Gandhi, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

Steve Salerno said...

When I first began writing about this topic a few years ago, even I--an opponent of the death penalty--was surprised by the anger voiced against those who "celebrate" executions. Sentiments like that voiced by our Anon 1:14 were not uncommon; I even heard from people who wished for more death to visit the families of execution witnesses. Such a sad cycle, the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

(Different anon here);


What are the family members looking for? In a case like this where the killer didn't know the victims - the relatives are not looking for an apology, nor remorse.

They are looking for the death of the killer.

Why? Because the execution of the killer finally brings something they can understand - cause-and-effect enters the situation. When a loved one is killed randomly (a.k.a.a "senseless crime" ) the loved ones are tormented by the lack of sense as well as the unexpected, immediate death. The question "why" is haunting. They can understand a car accident (inherent danger), or maybe a premature death from being overweight; drug overdose or in a dangerous profession, - a situation where you can see it coming. But the senseless murder is torture on so many levels. The loved ones are thrust into a horrible situation that they didn't invite and they can't control. They can't speak out at the trial for fear of screwing up the case. They watch as the killer is treated as a victim by an endless stream of do-gooders, many of whom have no clue about the facts of the case. They are helpless as dozens of appeals are filed by dedicated lawyers looking for a technicality loophole which ignores the evidential truth in the case. They watch as the police, prosecutor, jury and judge are endlessly second-guessed. They feel as if the killer got away with a "free one" if the killer just winds up in prison.

The execution of a killer who killed randomly allows the loved ones to get some understanding - "he killed my sister, and now the state executed him. I don't know why my sister had to die, but I fully understand why the killer had to die." That is the thought process.

At least in my case. My sister was raped and murdered in her home by a guy who painted her house a few weeks earlier. She really didn't know they guy; there was no dispute or romantic relationship. He just came back one night and broke into her basement and waited for her to come home and go to sleep. August 24th, 1984. Half of my life ago.

I have moved on and have made a great, full life for myself. I have not dwelled on the most tragic event in my life - it does not define me, just as her last 30 minutes did not define her life. My life will not change one bit if the killer is executed or continues to be locked up. My parents, however, were more consumed by this event. They never really got over it. And her killer is still on death row today.
(And please, don't anybody express "how sorry you are". That just makes you feel better, not us.)

I've forgiven him as much as I can. But that should not prevent the State of &*@#*&^ from delivering the punishment the jury, and the law, said he should receive. And no, this is not a case of "an-eye-for-an-eye" - if it were, we would need a bunch of draft picks.

(Steve, you know from this ip address who I am. You can shoot me a private email and I'll provide more documentation if you wish.)

LizaJane said...

Anon - You presume, with disquieting disdain, to know what's in the hearts and minds of the people who attend executions. Granted, the notion is a sickening one to me (somehow even sicker than the execution itself, and that's saying something). But regardless of their intent, or what they do after the fact, they remain the victims of the crime, and Muhammad (assuming his guilt) remains the murderer of innocent people. Praising him for anything related to his crime -- and particularly for "pulling one over" on his victims' grieving family -- is inappropriate.

Jenny said...

Beautifully put, Steve.