Thanos' apathy in face of death reflects our own

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 12, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

John Thanos approaches death to a crescendo of public indifference. Once, the execution of a human being provoked great public outcries, philosophical shrieks about the sanctity of human life. Now Thanos lives out his days like some pathetic bug pinned down by legalities, twitching his limbs only when the system nudges him a little.

The world outside his cell pays only sporadic attention, absorbed as it is by other crimes, the homicides du jour. The arithmetic of modern street killing numbs us to the desires of a Thanos calling for his own speedy death.

Let him have it, we say. We blink at the irony of a man so hungry for his nonexistence that he attempts suicide, only to have the state itself save him. None of that stuff, the state says, preparing to bloody its own hands somewhere down the road. If anybody's going to kill Thanos, it'll be the state itself.

The courts now have him penciled for death in the first week of November, assuming final legal arguments are settled later this month. Thanos wearily shrugs his shoulders at all defense efforts, and makes lame jokes. Death, he tells us, is preferable to the torture of lying in his cell with the sound of Oprah Winfrey's television show in his ears.

''There is no question as to my guilt,'' he said a year ago, in a letter urging Gov. William Donald Schaefer to sign a death warrant. ''I gave a lengthy video confession, and I'm not sorry for anything.''

A few weeks ago, in open court, he declared he would kill again if given a chance. It piqued our interest for a moment. Put him out of his misery, we said in a collective sigh, perhaps noting five new victims, three of them children, added to the homicide count in a single day last week.

''Yeah, let him go,'' said a correctional officer standing outside the Maryland Penitentiary in yesterday morning's crisp sunshine.

''What's one more life,'' added an officer standing beside him, ''when you got all these people dying in the streets?''

Barring a late switch in execution methods, Thanos would come here, to the penitentiary's gas chamber, to die. The prison guards, officially neutral, seem slightly bemused at all the

Thanos talk. They've been down this road before, seen men come and go along Death Row, and have put the gas chamber through 32 years of routine test runs since the last execution.

Twenty-two years ago I spent a week on Death Row, interviewing its inhabitants. There were 19 men there that winter. All are gone now, shifted back into general prison population, paroled, deceased by natural causes, not one ever executed though all had been convicted of murder.

One of the inmates was Joe Bartholomey. He was lean and

blond and sentenced to die for a homicide. At 23, he seemed outwardly pugnacious in the face of death.

''What bothers me,'' he said one morning, ''is losing my freedom. Death doesn't faze me, let 'em do it. This is worse. There's nothing worse than taking a man's freedom, not even taking his life.''

He looked around his darkened cell, decorated by photos of young women. On a table was a gift from someone, with a handwritten message saying, ''Aren't you glad we have each other?''

But he was all alone, and trying to tough his way through it.

''We cling to life,'' he said, ''but what's this? They're just taking human beings and throwing us away.''

Two decades later, that's what John Thanos is saying, too, only he's articulated it louder and more often, and punctuated it with suicide efforts. When we rouse ourselves to think about him, it is mostly to say: Let him go.

It's not merely our revulsion at his crimes, but the uncomfortable reminder he brings: We don't really know how crazy he is, do we? We know that he had a tormented childhood, but we're not sure how much it should count, are we? But he says he wants to die, so let's give him his wish.

Once, we imagined such an execution might stop the flood of violence in our streets. Now, we're not so sure. The killing has become a wave with a power of its own, heeding nothing. Once, we said execution was justified as simple, eye-for-an-eye punishment. Now, it's just one more killing, and the killings have numbed us. And this is why, step by painful step, John Thanos marches toward his death in a strange shroud of public indifference.

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