Monday, September 27, 2010

"A Form of Civic Education"

Our neighbors, the Whittens, have a foreign exchange student staying with them. I saw him walking toward town yesterday morning, and stopped to offer him a ride.

Once he was in the car, there was an awkward pause, as neither of us quite knew how to make conversation with the other. Finally he said, with some hesitation, “I see you people in Virginia have executed a woman. The first in almost a hundred years.”

“Yep,” I said cheerfully. “That’s progress for you.”

“Progress?” he said, frowning.

“Right. Women’s equality,” I explained. “Equal treatment. Virginia has been executing men by the truckload. Women deserve their fair share, and this is a start. Treat both sexes alike. No discrimination.”

He turned and stared at me. “May I inquire what the rationale for such executions might be? Is it simply vengeance?”

“No, no,” I reassured him. “Vengeance would be barbaric. Executions are a form of civic education. We kill people to teach people that killing people is wrong.”

“You kill people to teach people that killing people is wrong?” he asked, as if he had trouble following simple logic.

“You’ve got it,” I replied. I added, “Even though this woman, Teresa Lewis, didn’t pull the trigger herself, she planned the killings, and two other people working for her did the actual shooting. She could have stopped them, but she let the killings take place. They were premeditated and carried out without remorse.”

He paused again. Then he said, “And your governor, Mr. McDonnell. He didn’t execute her personally?”

“Of course not,” I scoffed. “He has subordinates who do the detailed work and carry out his instructions. He could have stayed the execution or changed Teresa Lewis’s punishment to life imprisonment, but he said he couldn’t see any reason not to execute her. He denied the appeals and gave the go-ahead for the execution to take place. It was carefully premeditated, and was carried out without remorse on his part.”

“Mrs. Lewis,” he said. “Did she remain unrepentant for her responsibility in causing the deaths of others?”

“It’s hard to tell about those things,” I admitted. “Other prisoners and some of the prison chaplains said that over the years she was waiting to be killed she comforted other prisoners, prayed for them, sang for them, and was generally an inspiration.”

“I see,” he said. “And Mr. McDonnell. What will the impact of Mrs. Lewis’s execution be on his political career?”

“Oh, I’m sure he and his staff calculated the potential impact thoroughly,” I said. “No question that the execution was a win-win situation for him. It’s bound to have bolstered his support among conservative Christians, Right-to-Lifers, and get-tough-on-crime hard-liners. So I would imagine, all in all, he’s pretty happy with the results.”

“Then executing Mrs. Lewis profited him politically?” he asked.

“Oh, I would think so,” I said.

“What was Mrs. Lewis’s motive for her crime?” he inquired.

“Money,” I said. “She was hoping to profit by collecting $250,000 in life insurance.”

“That seems truly callous,” he murmured, and I agreed.

But something still seemed to be bothering him. “It is my understanding that every year more and more bills are introduced in your legislature to increase the types of offenses for which people can be executed?”

“That’s right,” I said. “That’s how things work in an advanced nation. The legal system is constantly updated to keep pace with social progress.”

“I’m sorry. One more question. Could you explain to me how Mrs. Lewis was put to death?” he asked somewhat numbly.

“In the most humane way possible,” I assured him. “Fourteen corrections officials strapped her down so she couldn’t move. Then someone injected poison into her veins, and people stood around and watched her die.”

He seemed to be having trouble taking it all in, and we rode on silently for a few blocks. “This is where I get off,” he managed, signaling me to stop. “Thank you for your courtesy in providing me with transportation, as well as for a most memorable conversation.”

“No problem,” I responded, not wanting to make too much of it. I knew foreigners are often overwhelmed by Americans’ kindness and generosity. As I told Patty afterward, “He speaks surprisingly good English, and he seems pretty well informed. But he doesn’t have a clue about how a civilized country operates.”

For an instant, an expression flickered across Patty’s face. The one that hurts--compassion. “Oh, Ace,” she began, “sometimes you’re so....” Then she stopped, turned, and walked out of the kitchen without finishing.

I love that woman.

© Tony Russell, 2010