Sunday, March 13, 2011


One point of light in this ghastly week of darkness has been the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. Perhaps it's some kind of karmic balance to the election of Rahm Emannuel as mayor. Or payback for nurturing Obama, the current Grand Poobah of Extinction.

On March 9, Rod Blagojevich's successor, Gov. Pat Quinn, signed into law an abolition bill passed by state House and Senate, and Illinois joined Vermont and fourteen other states in abrogating capital punishment as a sentence for state-committed crimes.

Disaster Humanitarianism

Some of the legislators' reasons quoted by the Death Penalty Information Service were a bit lacking in moral depth:

"We have spent over $100 million of taxpayer money defending and prosecuting death row cases. The death penalty does not make our society safer, I believe. It has been an ineffective and expensive use of our scarce resources."

“I was on both sides of this issue. But then you think of the potential cost savings of this bill, and the state needs all of the savings we can get.”

This is a bit like being against racial prejudice because black people, see, aren't actually black -- they're more brown.

But, hey, if disaster capitalism or questionable reasoning must reign, let them reign here, too, to better effect.

Caveat Humanor

But Land of Lincolners, beware -- Vermont's experience bears watching:

No one had been executed in state for 33 years, and in 1987 our state legislature, too, abolished a Vermont death penalty. But fourteen years later, this was too much for the Bush administration. His Justice Department, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, decided to do something about Vermont's raging liberalism.

A murder committed in 2000, admitted to by a remorseful  20-year old, had been plea-bargained for life without the possibility of parole. But because the victim was abducted in Vermont and the perpetrators, drunkenly fleeing, transported the victim over the border to New York State, Ashcroft demanded that his prosecutors change their agreement and go for death for the interstate crime. And on a kind of reverse-Bastille Day, 14 July 2005, a jury of twelve Vermonters delivered Vermont's first death sentence in 50 years -- another notch in Bush/Cheney's belt. And following the sentencing, there began a push to bring capital punishment back.

Now Bush/Ashcroft have become Obama/Holder, and a similar drama is unfolding.  In a perfectly awful sex-murder of a 12-year old, with murderer, victim and crime entirely in-state, the new feds have once again moved in to claim jurisdiction, and thus demand another death penalty from death penalty-free Vermont.

What is their reasoning? That the internet was used in the developing story, and the internet is interstate, ergo it’s a federal offense, ergo, let's go for death. Obama's motivation? Who knows. But you have to be tough on crime to get elected in 2012. 

Our Public Defender is fighting such legal travesty, but the big boys have more money. Disaster humanitarianism goes only so far.

And Our Reasoning?

The internet makes all crime these days federal crimes. Questionable reasoning. The death penalty should be abolished because it saves money to do so. Questionable reasoning, though true.

Not to be simplistic, but it seems to me that capital punishment should be abolished for moral reasons, not economic or technical ones. Call it Thou Shalt not Kill. Call it Do Unto Others. Call it Two Wrongs Don't. Call it what you want, but the state of We the People is not granted the right to kill its citizens. This is not a moonbeam hippy idea. Most comparable advanced-economy states agree.

In the midst of the 2006 cry to bring the death penalty back to Vermont, I thought I'd explore the motivations behind an extreme example in our own western culture, and researched and published a novel called The Good Doctor Guillotin. I found much involved in the French Revolution still relevant to our attitudes and times.

Here is the short first chapter as a teaser. I invite you to explore this subject with me.


When asked in the 1960s about the historical effect of the French Revolution, Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai replied, “Too soon to tell.”

I. Prelude


Five paths converging at a place, and that place is the scaffold. Five roads to this engorging center, and five ways of the five men upon them.

For the Pythagoreans, five was the number of man—with his five fingers, five toes, and five senses, the creature who could be placed inside a pentagram,

with its center at his groin.

While his groin may have been near the center of the scaffold on April 25, 1792, the center of attention was his neck—the neck of Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, age thirty-six, profession “brigand,” the first of many to mate with the new machine.

Five were the number of the wounds of Christ, a truth held dear by another at the scaffold, the curé Pierre-René Grenier, spiritual adviser and companion of Pelletier’s last days.

There, too, was the builder of the machine, the “painless device”—which for a while would be known as the “louison” after Antoine Louis, the doctor who had perfected its design—one Tobias Schmidt, a German piano-maker living and working in Paris.

The machine’s attendant was also there, of course: Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner of Paris, who nine months later would strap a king onto the plank, hold his fallen head up by the hair, and show it to the crowd. Nine pregnant months into the birth of a new world, and the death of an old one.

A fifth person was there, too, completing the pentagram, its head, perhaps, but cut off from the event, mind tortured and heart afraid—Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, professor at the Faculté de Medicine, Parisian delegate to the National Assembly, a man charged with helping to write a constitution for an unimagined world.

He was secretary to that Assembly, the good Doctor Guillotin, that singular man, a respectable clinician much in demand, a man doomed by laughing fate to immortal scorn. He wanted an egalitarian justice system, a more humane method of execution. In return he was haunted by repulsion and sniggering, by dirty pointing fingers and hands going chop-chop at the neck. His name became attached to a monster daughter, fathered by his Enlightenment hope for improving the lot of humankind. And contempt has followed him to the present day. On April 25, 1792, he could not bring himself to witness the event: He turned his back to the scaffold.

In a funeral oration for Guillotin on March, 23, 1814, a Dr. Bourru remarked, “It is difficult to benefit mankind without some unpleasantness resulting for oneself.”

Alas, too true.

Five paths to that scaffold, a pentagram of powerlessness and power. For the Freemasons, of which Guillotin was one, the pentagram inscribed in the pentagon symbolized the hermetic mystery of Solomon’s Seal, the Quintessence, a fifth essence beyond fire, water, earth, and air, the burning star of the Spirit. Walking the halls of our own pentagon, we find still the same array: would-be altruists, victims dreaming of victims, builders of efficient machines, those who use them, and those who bless them.

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