Daily and Nightly, Ever So Slightly, San Quentin

It's an on-and-off idea of mine to go to one of the candlelight vigils that attend an execution at San Quentin. Of the last two such go-rounds, for Stanley Williams in December 2006 and Clarence Ray Allen in January 2007, I watched the coverage from the road, teaching in places I couldn't now tell you where. I can tell you before too long passes, though, that I will walk through what notes and receipts I have, and figure it out. It seems important to know.

I'm not sure what I expect to find at one of these vigils, but I hope it's more than we get on these absurd verbal punchups on name-your-cheap-derivative-of-Nightline-here. On the left, the sedentary conservative who states lifelessly that the law supports the will of the majority. On the right, the smug liberal on-scene whose objections, however important to voice, are soon overridden by exasperation over the impending act and contempt for anyone hungry enough for attention that they'll come forward to not-oppose it. (Explain it to me, Mike Farrell; why is someone a coward if they think death is appropriate for a cold-blooded murderer?)

But there's a moment of truth in all this that has yet to arrive for me. I didn't know the story of either of these two men until the days leading to their execution. So up to now I'm...discomfited, let's say, by state execution. I find no deep moral ground for opposition to it, so far as the method remains tightly controlled and neutral in form. I don't find execution barbaric in principle. We know how to kill people, we talk about how to kill people, we think about killing people, portray killing and murder in every media, log methodically how people have been killed by others. Every hour of every day. Show me a governor who can sign a death warrant and whistle a tune on his way home, though, and I'll show you a sad excuse for a human being. But, we don't typically elect humanitarians to such an office, and I'm hard-pressed to find the savage breast in open court proceedings, unless you want to think of indifference as a savage trait.

It is, at the same time, the one task of a governor I hope would age me and force that person to look deeply within themselves. There is something a person should go through, irrevocable and terrible, in choosing to deny another person the chance to live. Perhaps that is the only consideration, that meditation, that sets the state-appointed executioner apart from the killer.

But back to what I called the moment of truth. By that, I mean the people whose acts I followed in the news, carefully, to understand not only what they were accused and convicted of, but what they said about it, what they didn't say about it, and what was revealed in them that gave the idea of a death penalty, in my mind, merit. The figures that caught my attention include Charles Manson, Dan White, Charles Ng, Richard Allen Davis, Lyle and Erik Menendez, Dorothea Puente, Scott Petersen, Cary Staynor. Manson, Puente and the Menendez brothers have life sentences, and White is already dead. If there is a day coming for Davis, Ng, Peterson, and Staynor, the truth for me consists in meeting that day, hoping to walk away with balance, a balance between the barbarity of the acts they've been convicted of and the power we give the state to take their lives in response.

I can walk to San Quentin's gates from my bedroom in about an hour. In the dark, I imagine, one shadow or maybe one of many who arrive that way; I don't know, nor do I want to become part of any doing. I do want to feel the desperation, the anger, the grief, and understand what such people, protesting in the name of civilized society, go through at an execution.

I also imagine walking towards home as the sun comes up over the East Bay hills, climbing the Blithedale Summit, following the watershed to Mount Tam, and climbing over until I see the Pacific Ocean. I want to make sure any conversation with the part of me that is willing to kill, for whatever reason, takes place in the most promising setting.

Until then, the Larkspur ferry cuts tail through the water that separates the prison's western boundary from Larkspur and Corte Madera. I don't know yet if my son's high school still supports a crew team, but I'd also like to catch them out there some day. Some mornings I can see the incoming ferry's large wake rolling out to the mud flats. The birds that are stooped on them, seemingly indifferent to the inexorable roll of water, will scatter to other ground, but only at the last possible moment.


SkylersDad said...

What does it say about me that I find it more difficult to kill an animal than a man who I believe deserves it?

Michael said...

You're wrestling with the question. That goes a long way.

The better target for it, I think, is the man who does kill, and tries to escape it by becoming someone else, as if that is the total of what a just society can expect.