How Did We Become So Polarized?
Over night last night Stanley "Tookie" Williams was executed by the State of California for murdering 4 people. And today the blog world is abuzz with commentary on the morality of the execution. I believe I would be safe in wagering a large sum on saying that it is a fact that approximately 95% of the postings are of the form, "The execution was a prime example the (worst crime)/(greatest service) a government can (perpetrate on)/(perform for) its citizenry because [insert mostly irrelevant and/or meaningless rhetoric here] and if you don't agree with me you are the densest moron ever to walk the face of the earth." Now for the most part, I try to avoid such blogs because they tend to be written by, well, for lack of a better phrase, some of the densest morons ever to walk this planet. But while browsing through the postings of some bloggers I generally respect and enjoy reading, I did come across a posting of this nature. I was surprised, and more, I felt like I needed to respond. Below is the text of my response in its entirety, though to really understand it, I do recommend that you click the link above and read the original post.
I'm not going to say a word about the morality of the death penalty in this specific case here, so perhaps in a lot of ways not a thing I say here is going to mean a whole lot, however I do feel that your presentation of Mr. Williams does call for a response to balance the scales. First of all, Mr. Williams was charged and convicted of ONLY 4 murders, because those were ones that the prosecutor had enough evidence to convict him on. In fact, as the founder and leader of the Crips gang, he was almost certainly directly or indirectly responsible for dozens of other killings. By literally fathering "modern" gang culture in the US he is responsible for thousands of deaths. Second, hundreds of people are nominated every year for Nobel Peace Prizes. It is almost completely meaningless to be nominated. Any politician or professor of history, sociology, or divinity is permitted to make a nomination and most of them do. Oprah gets nominated EVERY year. So does george Bush. The Nobel selection committee throws most of those nominations right into the dumpster. Finally, although he did indeed author many books for young people encouraging them to steer clear of gang life and what not, there is actually considerable evidence that right up to a very short time ago, Mr. Williams was still involved in and even directing the activities of the Crips in Southern California. He was, perhaps, not as reformed as he was often portrayed.
Does any of this mean that he deserved to die? I don't know. The death penalty is such a sticky, complicated issue. I don't agree that it is as cut and dry as you make it out to be. Obviously the words "State sanctioned murder" bring to mind terrible things - the words themselves are polarized. But war is nothing but State sanctioned murder on a huge scale, and as terrible as war is, no rational person can deny a State's right to wage war in its own defense.
Every civilized nation on this earth has "exceptions" to their laws against murder. Self-defense, defense of the life of another, Defense of the reasonable safety and well being of self or another, and the list goes on. The question is, are there times when we must except the State as well. In my opinion that is an extremely complicated question with no simple answer. And what astounds me is when seemingly perfectly rational people become so violently polarized on complicated issues like this one. As if there is one absolute, obviously correct answer; as if they possess the one real truth and anyone who doesn't agree must be stupid or blind. Because there isn't an obviously correct answer, and just because someone disagrees doesn't make them stupid or blind - it very possibly makes them thoughtful and worth talking to because geting other perspectives can often be useful in adjusting your own.
I'll come right out and say it now. I support the death penalty. I also believe capital punishment is a difficult, tangled issue, and I can appreciate that other people hold different opinions on this issue. I also think that executing criminals is an ugly, awful thing to do and in a perfect world there would be no such thing as the death penalty. Just as in a perfect world there would be no war. But we don't live in a perfect world, and I think that in the imperfect world we live in, the death penalty is necessary. I also think that way in which the death penalty is enforced in the United States is terribly flawed, almost certainly not equitable, and needs fixing. But I don't think it should be done away with. I think that the system should be fixed, not done away with.
That being said, I am not going to try to defend my position here. That is a subject for another post. Rather the issue I want to raise here is about the transition in the past 25 years (at least to my observation) in this country (and around the world apparently) in the press, in the media, in politics, and in society from a time when two individuals with opposing viewpoints on an issue could talk to each other; could reasonably discuss the contentious issue; could respect each other's point of view; could peacefully coexist, to now, when two people with opposing viewpoints feel compelled to condemn each other to eternal torment in the fires of hell in the loudest possible voices, if not do actual physical harm to each other. How and why did this happen?
Some of my very best friends oppose capital punishment. With nearly all of them I can discuss the issue calmly and rationally without calling them morons, without fear of them condeming me for my beliefs, with feeling the need to punch them in the face or shoot them in their heads for their beliefs. I can listen to their reasoning and appreciate it, and respect their opinions and AT THE SAME TIME, continue to hold my own beliefs on the matter. Why is this so difficult for the rest of the world?
Why, when a polician stands up and says we need to consider a new strategy in the war in Iraq do opposing politicians feel the need to call that man a coward and traitor? At the same time when a politician stands up in reasoned defense of the same war why does the other side do little more than shout out accusations of deceit, war profiteering and imperialism? How is it possible that a single woman in a vegetative state can literally reduce this nation to a civil war of violent, hateful, hyperbolic rhetoric? What happened to reasonable discussion and debate without getting angry or ugly or violent? I don't get it. But I'll tell you this - the loss in this country by so many people of the ability to respect those with different viewpoints is dangerous beyond belief. Slowly but surely the fabric of this nation is being ripped apart by this loss of civility and the consequences get uglier day by day.