Written By: Billy Sinclair
For our book Capital Punishment: An Indictment by a Death Row Survivor, my wife and co-author, Jodie, did some compelling research into the origins of the death penalty during man’s evolution. In the essay “The Justice Gene,” she probably tapped into the primal origin of this penalty with the following passages:
“Why do Americans cling so tenaciously to a punishment that cannot be rescinded once it has been carried out—often in monstrous ways—even in cases where compelling evidence of innocence surfaces before an execution? Perhaps our frontier history with its urgent need to curb lawlessness across a vast wilderness has left us more attuned to a natural consequence of our evolution. Perhaps the answer lies in our genes,
“Millions of years before recorded history, our small apelike ancestors stood up on their hind legs and began a struggle to survive on the African veldt, virtually defenseless in a vicious place for which they had abandoned the safety of the trees. In the fossil record over the long evolutionary march toward Homo sapiens, their bones and those of their descendants reveal the physical changes that resulted in us: upright creatures with bigger frames, longer bones, and larger brains.
“But the fossil record reveals little about the thoughts and emotions and emotions that coursed through their brains as our ancestors made their long, gradual trek toward modern man. We must wonder, then, whence comes the common mindset that governs our behavior.
“Science suggests that it evolved in a setting that demanded social cooperation for survival. Imagine a group of hominids. One of its members has eaten more than its fair share of the group’s food. Now watch the group as a whole brutally assaulting the offender, possibly beating it to death. In a place and time where food was scarce and life itself was risked to gather it, the entire group might die of starvation if the behavior of the offender went unchecked. Such a scene resonates with us. We easily understand the need for this punishment.”
Thus a reasonable inference can be drawn that the origins of the death penalty is rooted in human altruism, in the primal need to protect the group. But as mankind evolved into the “modern man,” the group’s need to impose the death penalty against the wrongdoing individual grew more vicious and unnecessarily cruel. The ancient sin of revenge developed from the rather singular demand of an “eye for an eye” into a collective desire to torture the individual not only for real wrongs that threatened the group’s welfare but imagined ones as well. Through this long trek of man’s “civilization,” which left millions upon millions of slaughtered bodies in its wake, finally produced the horrors of Nazism in Germany in the 1940s and the 100 days of genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
The evil of revenge lurks in the heart of every modern man. This was evidenced by a letter published in the Houston Chronicle newspaper on March 14, 2009. The letter was written by a Bloomfield, New Jersey resident named J. Andrew Smith and submitted in response to one of the newspaper’s previous articles about Bernard Madoff. In its entirety, the J. Andrew Smith letter reads:
“In response to Thursday’s Business article ‘Madoff guilty plea to give little comfort to victims/Some worried that financier won’t reveal any accomplices’: Society deserves something back from Bernie Madoff and all those other finance crooks. Enslave them in hard labor camps. Test all drugs, tortures and surgical techniques on them—forget animals. Give all their homes and other assets to the people they screwed, not families or friends. And when they die, donate their organs, preserve what’s left and hang them naked in front of the Stock Exchange.”
That kind of perverse demand for revenge fuels the death penalty in “modern” society. The demand for the kind of punishment and torture sought by J. Andrew Smith as a representative of our collective society against Bernard Madoff is a throwback to the horrors of Nazism. It’s reflects the same mindset of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler as they sought to purge Jews from the “face of the earth.” In his famous Poznan speech, Himmler said: “we had a duty to our people to do it [exterminate the Jews], to kill this people who want to kill us.”
J. Andrew Smith’s sick demand for revenge does not surprise me. Being from the South, and having lived through the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, those same demands were made by cowardly sonuvabitches wearing white hoods and erecting burning crosses as they railed hatred against black people. They tortured and lynched black people in the name of “racial and social justice.”
What did surprise me, however—and, in fact, angered me considerably—is that a major American newspaper located in the nation’s fourth largest city would publish such an obvious Nazism-inspired invective against a Jewish criminal defendant. It’s tantamount to publishing a letter from the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan demanding that a black defendant be tortured and then hung naked in the public square.
What happened to responsible editorship? Even the homeless in Houston are aware that the Chronicle is facing a severe economic crisis that’s challenging its very survival, but the need to sell newspapers should not include publishing letters—no matter how much they may appeal to the most prurient desires of some of its readers—that call for a return to the “drugs, tortures and surgical techniques” utilized by the Nazis against the Jews. J. Andrew Smith’s letter offered not one single statement of redeeming value that contributes to the social discourse associated with the Bernard Madoff case.
Jodie and I have no sympathy for the likes of Bernie Madoff. We lost one-third of our retirement portfolio because of “Wall Street criminals” like Madoff. We will now have to work deep into old age to keep from becoming a financial burden on our younger family members. But our financial loss, nor the financial loss suffered by any of Madoff’s victims, provides a credible social license to demand the kind of punishment J. Andrew Smith would have society exact against the likes of Madoff.
Are we really ready as a society to accept the kind of Nazi-inspired government advocated by the likes of Mr. Smith? I hope not – and I am both disappointed and offended that the Houston Chronicle would lend any credence to the kind of punishments advocated by Mr. Smith by publishing his letter.
But I should not be disappointed. Texas, after all, is the death penalty capital of the world!