On my way to a vigil last night for Steven Oken’s execution in Baltimore, I drove past a group of passionate supporters for the execution. “Fry Oken” and “Goodbye Oken” were among the twenty signs that people were carrying. I had prepared myself for the chilling silence at 9:15, but I had not prepared myself to drive by those supporters. I knew the execution was wrong without doubt (the sign I carried said, “End it, don't mend it: Abolish the death penalty"), but I kept asking myself, “How is it that I can be so adamantly opposed while these others are so supportive?”
The question became more pressing when people drove by and yelled “Choke an Oken” or “He killed three people, he’s gotta go.” Others drove by and honked in support of us or made a peace sign as they drove by. The question burned when a victim’s family member walked by and said, “You’re entitled to your opinion but I really don’t like you guys. He killed my sister-in-law, he has to die.” None of us really knew how we ought to respond.
A reporter interviewed me and asked me a version of my own question. He described the supporters down the street, the grief of victims’ families and their desire for capital punishment. Then he asked me how an opponent of the death penalty can treat them fairly. I responded that after heinous crimes people grieve deeply and are often and quite understandably driven by the passion that comes with that grief. It is simply a fact of our human nature—it is a part of all of us. The law’s job, however, is not to embrace and act on passion. The law’s job is to temper our gut feelings with reason. And reason, I hold, dictates the abolition of the death penalty.
Ultimately, I think Oken’s execution disturbed me so much because I felt responsible for a law that embraces not human reason, but the passion for revenge that lurks deep in every human heart. It is a law that codifies, rather than tames, Conrad’s heart of darkness. Accordingly, “Shame on Maryland” was my favorite sign at the vigil.
I have not yet decided if my response to the reporter was the best or most appropriate. I do agree, however, with the advice of a woman who spoke at an open microphone after the execution—Most of us are so adamantly opposed to the death penalty that we can’t even begin to understand where other people are coming from, she said. The only thing we see right now is their signs, but we need to really understand their point of view in order to make change.
Right now, people are debating whether Oken's execution was right or wrong on the web site of the Baltimore Sun. Go here to view the debate. One thing is for sure, though; a seemingly insurmountable gulf exists between supporters and opponents of the death penalty. One wonders how we are going to transcend it.