The silence of the bells

I would like to think of it as the dawning of a new age of compassion, a shift in cultural attitudes from howls of vengeance to the acceptance of punishment administered in a fair and equal manner without killing anyone.

Thumbnail image for al-martinez-photo.jpgI would like to think of it, the ruling, as the beginning of the end of capital punishment in California and then everyplace else, the dissolution of a last link to savageries of the past.
And perhaps then my own nightmare would end.

I'm talking about the ruling last month by U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney that declared the state's death penalty unconstitutional. This is a decision not by a weeping liberal, but by a Constitutional conservative appointed by President George W. Bush.

Judge Carney called the state's penalty broken by delays and selection, and questioned the terrible pain a convict had to endure after the lethal cocktail of drugs was injected.

His ruling was cheered as a breakthrough by those who have fought for years to have capital punishment abolished. Among them is actor Mike Farrell, president of Death Penalty Focus, who has faced hostile crowds in sessions explaining why he is an activist for life, and has been shouted down, vilified and threatened. But he pressed on.

A young Marine just returned from the killing fields of Korea, I was assigned to cover the gas chamber execution of two men and a woman for the Oakland Tribune. The men died together, the woman alone. The horror of their agonizing clinical deaths changed me forever. Thereafter I refused every death house assignment and began, as a columnist, advocating the end of capital punishment.

The threats and name-calling have been monumental. My nightmares are pervasive.

There has been no such rage this time from those advocates of an eye for an eye, and Farrell wonders, as I do, whether there are tremors to the underlying hatreds that are shattering the belief that death is the only answer to order.

An emailer who prefers anonymity, used poetry in the face of horror by quoting from John Donne: "Every man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

The gong of the funeral bells are lessening as we discover that they are ringing for the humanity in our souls as well as for those who face the executioner. Someday they may be silenced forever.

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