What story will we tell?


April 23, 1992|By Martin E. Marty

THE STATE of California's execution of Robert Alton Harris at San Quentin will begin a new chapter in a long story of Americans' wrestling with capital punishment. The whole nation looks on while its most populous state, with the second longest lineup on death row -- 328 inmates waiting to follow Harris -- and with a reputation for being in the American vanguard, resumes this form of killing after 25 years.

At the moment of turning the page to this chapter, what remains to be said? Those who favor the death penalty and those who oppose it battle on, like two punched-out fighters late in the last round, too weary to summon new resources and too committed to the agony to stop. All the arguments have been heard. The demonstrators against the resumption march tirelessly, and those who favor it have marshaled their larger troops. A majority of Californians in particular and Americans in general -- some surveys suggest 80 percent -- are turning to the death penalty with enthusiasm. It has become politically popular to execute criminals.

Why? What is the impulse behind this trend? Some, citing growing crime rates, still cling without evidence to the theory that capital punishment deters criminals. But if it is true, as contended, that the infant Harris was condemned by fetal alcohol syndrome; that the child Harris was the victim of physical and sexual abuse, and that the adult Harris manifested signs of schizophrenia, one asks: Is it credible to think that other citizens with similar mental histories watched the television, read the newspaper coverage of the execution and now will desist from murderous activity? Will warring spouses, feuding neighbors or drugged felons who kill in passion or mindlessness be deterred because Harris and 328 more people are killed?

There is little patience for argument in the hearing of either side. Capital punishment opponents call proponents blood-lusting fools. Proponents call opponents bleeding-heart softies.

In any case, in a pluralist society and a legally secular one, appeals to the Bible would not have official force even if they did not cancel each other out. So some turn to formal philosophies. Yet Americans are having a hard time these days agreeing on whose philosophies to follow. You will find notable thinkers who argue that a spirit of revenge is good for society. They say killing killers is a necessary "clearing of the air," a "settling of accounts," a purging and purifying of a culture. You will find other ethicists who argue that such acts only inflame more murderous passions, appeal to the worst in sensation-seekers, and that adding to killing only clouds the search for justice.

Overlooked is a third form of dealing with issues in society, one strangely underused in the case of capital punishment. It has come to be called "narrative ethics." It asks: "What stories do we, as a people, tell about ourselves? How would we choose to live in the light of what these stories tell? How will we deal with particular cases in view of such narratives?"

Narrative ethics is really only a new name for what careful groups are doing all the time without a name. Thus to say, "That isn't done in our family" recalls a story of generations. To invoke: "We honor those who gave their lives for our country," touches hearts by appealing to the American narrative, when a nation in crisis must call for new sacrifice. "The members of this community have always responded to need; now let's do so again." Thus there is good evidence that Americans who volunteer their dollars and hours, who are generous toward others, are so not because someone moralized, commanded, browbeat or seduced them into acting. They are acting out stories they keep telling each other, stories they want to match and extend.

Granted, it is easier for a family, a movement or a church to act on the basis of its story than it is for a whole state or nation. Still, Americans do work at having a face to present to the world, one they hope will be positive, generous, moral. They have been moved by appeals on the part of their Abraham Lincolns to listen to the chords of memory. They do work at establishing their civil identity, so they come to know who they are and how they might act. In short, when they are serious they tell serious stories.

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