Dr. Teresa Whitehurst
December 14 , 2005
Executing Chinese Protestors, Disturbed Passengers and Tookie Williams: 2 Mistakes That Cripple Campaigns Against State Killing
Those who protested the execution of Tookie Williams made the classic mistake of the anti-death penalty movement: They appealed to Americans through the media that the state should not kill because of the virtues of the prisoner -- a terribly weak argument, easily defeated by capital punishment advocates' beliefs in the virtues of punishment. Hoping to sway the public (and, through public pressure, the governor) in this era of faith-based politics, celebrities and hardworking opponents of the death penalty tried to point out Williams' "redemption," but this sot to the religious right did not work. The kind of "faith" that's gripping our nation is based not on Jesus' teachings about mercy and redemption but on harsh Old Testament-style punishments, including and especially capital punishment by stoning and similarly cruel and unusual methods.
Those who've protested the state killings of a British subway passenger who made the mistake of wearing a jacket in warm weather and looking "Asian" and a mentally disturbed American airline passenger who became agitated for still-unknown reasons and claimed (wrongly) to have a bomb have made a similar error, pointing out the passenger's virtues ("he was a good man who simply hadn't taken his medication"), which is readily tossed aside by arguments for the virtue of shoot-to-kill security at any cost.
And now those who're protesting the state killings of protestors in China are making the same error, appealing to the inner virtues of the victims ("they were innocent people"), which is quickly silenced and rejected by the Chinese government in favor of the virtues of maintaining order at any cost.
The common thread in these three events is the lack of a coherent and effective message and strategy by many sincere, well-intentioned people who oppose state killings.
Mistake #1: Emotional Appeals Regarding the Virtue of the Victim
By appealing to the virtues of the victims, they distract us all from the real problem: the state's power to kill with impunity. By ending the protest after the killing is done, similar killings are made more likely in the future, not less because the the public grows accustomed to the pattern of an initial outcry that subsides as soon as the supposedly virtuous and necessary killing has been completed -- rather like a parent learns to disregard their sick baby's vocal protests before and during a painful but essential injection of medication. "It only hurts for a while."
Protestors of the state's power to kill, whether that state is the US, China or some other punishment-focused law-and-order culture, must stop extolling the virtues of the victims -- inner virtues that are easily denied or countered -- if they hope to become more effective.
It doesn't matter whether or not Tookie Williams was "redeemed" or had done good works or had shown sufficient remorse: The problem was that the state killed a prisoner.
It doesn't matter whether or not the mentally ill "I've got a bomb" passenger was a good man, or had been on or off his medication: The problem was that the state killed a passenger.
It doesn't matter whether the Chinese victims were innocent or protesting for great causes: The problem was that the state killed the protestors.
Mistake #2: Focusing on Protests and Appeals, Not Consequences
To make a tangible difference, not only must the message be on-point and avoid appeals to the victims' virtues (innocence, redemption, remorse, noble motivations, etc.), protestors against state killings must make an equal or greater effort after the deed is done to make sure that the state experiences the consequences of its actions.
This is the hard part. After the victims are dead, opponents of state-sponsored executions are naturally disheartened and exhausted. The last thing they want to think about is the overwhelming power of the state to do as it pleases, or the public's naïve nonchalance about unchecked state power. Yet this is precisely when the greatest activity should begin. Questions such as the following must be raised and answered:
A coherent message and an emphasis on after-the-fact consequences are essential for actual change in the state's power and public backing to kill human beings with impunity. There are plenty of experts out there who know how citizens can apply pressure to organizations, whether corporate or governmental, to reduce public support for and increase the costs of making certain choices.
I defer to those experts' answers to the questions raised above (though it seems a no-brainer that the 2008 Summer Olympics should not be sponsored by a nation wherein protestors are gunned down), but urge activists against state killings of whatever kind to invest their energies in (1) honing a rational message against the state's power to take human life, avoiding emotional appeals that are readily ridiculed and discounted, and (2) brainstorming with successful strategists about legal, effective and just consequences that will make state killings a lot less attractive to the leaders who find them expedient.
Surely the movement against the state's license to kill deserves the same degree of sophistication and political savvy enjoyed by, say, the tobacco industry, whose strategists avoid emotional appeals and instead hone their message about "corporate responsibility", saying ridiculous but effective focus-group tested things like, "We're teaching children not to smoke". Such strategists are also expert in exacting psychological and public opinion consequences on their victims and opponents alike by repeating the misleading but sensible-sounding mantra, "Smokers with lung cancer signed up for this; nobody forced them to use our products."
Those who worry about the growing ease with which governments are disposing of folks can either keep doing what they've been doing -- with the same results -- or get as serious about protecting human beings as the bullying state is about doing them in.
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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst, clinical psychologist and author of Jesus on Parenting, writes about the abuse of faith and power by the radical right. Invite or suggest her as a talk show guest. email@example.com