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Empathy and Vengeance: A New York Dilemma


By Eric M. Nelson

Showing you something of the "New York state of mind" these days is no great challenge--we are a city preoccupied with crime. The last two weeks in New York City have been like something out of a B movie: Serial killers who terrorized the happy countryside have finally been foiled by the "boys in blue." The only difference--albeit a rather significant one--is that our experience is for real.

Two weeks ago a young woman was brutally raped and beaten in broad daylight while walking in Central Park. While the young woman, now thankfully on the road to recovery, was in a coma, another woman, Evelyn Alvarez, was beaten to death while opening her dry-cleaning shop on Park Avenue. On June 14, John Royster was questioned regarding the Park Avenue attack and subsequently confessed to having been responsible for that attack, the Central Park incident, an additional attack in Yonkers on June 7 and a beating in uptown Manhattan on June 5.

That's not all the news from the New York dragnet. On June 20, a man cinematically know as the "Zodiac Killer" was finally apprehended after years of preying on the citizens of New York. His arrest came scarcely 24 hours after the equally dramatically epitheted "Elevator Rapist" was finally put in prison.

All in all, it's been a sort of "Silence of the Lambs" meets "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes"-type experience. But more than that, it has focused New York City and forced it to do some soul-searching on a fundamental question: What's to be done with these characters? Put more bluntly, New York is once again wrestling with the idea and practice of capital punishment.

We've all heard the major arguments surrounding the death penalty. In fact, I sometimes think that each side of the issue has a deck of "argument cards" that it provides its spokespeople; all they have to do is flip them in the right order. First usually comes the finance argument: the pro-capital punishment side derides the state for spending money to keep murderers alive, while the opposition fires back by insisting that it costs far more to execute a criminal than it does to maintain him in prison for life. Although nominally correct, there are several problems with this latter "card." First and obviously, the massive cost of carrying out a death sentence is incurred not through the actual procedure itself but, rather, through the endless appeals that each case involves.

Once the pro side has flipped this card, the opposition responds by feigning horror and replying that allowing criminals to have, say, five appeals rather than 12 would completely eliminate the constitutionality of our justice system. Usually left to the side is any mention of the qualitative, if not quantitative, difference between spending money to execute a criminal and spending money to keep the criminal alive.

And on we march. There is the race argument: it is more often southern blacks than whites who end up being executed. There is the wealth argument: those who have the money to assemble a "dream team" a la O.J. Simpson have a vastly superior chance of avoiding execution. There is the fallibility argument: DNA tests have recently shown that many convicted criminals were actually not responsible for the crimes for which they were imprisoned. If they were executed, that would have been that. And there is the deterrence argument: the pro side argues that the death penalty deters others from committing crime and prevents the criminal in question from ever striking again, while the opposition challenges the first claim and suggests life sentences in response to the second.

But all of these are, at least in some sense, beside the point. At its impolitic core, the debate over the death penalty is truly a dialogue between two of the most primitive and instinctual human responses: vengeance and empathy. Where you fall on the capital punishment issue will depend on which of these has won in your own internal debate. Deep down, all death penalty advocates want raw vengeance; they see the faces of Susan Smith's drowned children and the rubble of the World Trade Center and they cannot countenance allowing those responsible to breathe our air.

I believe also that those in the opposition are responding primarily to a pervading sense of empathy. Scum that the criminals may be, death penalty opponents see themselves walking the "dead man's walk" and being fastened into the chair. Although they recognize the heinous nature of the crimes some have committed, they somehow cannot conclude that they could ever "deserve to die." The thought that such a thing is possible frightens and disturbs them.

I am intimately familiar with both states of mind, as I have been a waffler and a fence-sitter on this issue for most of my life. I have been pro and con and both "with exceptions." But in the last couple of years I have come to a temporary conclusion: while vengeance is applicable to a discussion on capital punishment, empathy is not. When faced with a John Royster, the desire for vengeance is almost a given, while empathy is misplaced. If you are a decent person, you could never be in his situation; you will never walk that walk. There comes a time when we must acknowledge that some crimes rob their perpetrators of any humanity they may once have possessed, and, hence, of any substantial commonality with us. So I find myself an advocate for the death penalty.

Former Justice William J. Brennan wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that the state performs no good service to the victim of a crime by "emulating his murderer." Well, perhaps not. But I do not believe that retribution--in the case of capital crimes, a sense of individual and communal vengeance--is a vice. I will feel no remorse when I hear the bell toll for John Royster.

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