The death watch: Philosophy helps keep reality at bay


Outside the Maryland Penitentiary yesterday, in the early hours of the John Thanos death watch, a television cameraman took out a lawn chair and positioned it to face the morning sun. The day shouldn't be a total loss. Everybody was waiting for Thanos' carefully choreographed exit, but nobody knew when it would happen, so everybody looked for ways to pass the time constructively, such as getting a nice tan.

"I got two gloves and a ball," the cameraman said, though there wasn't much room at Madison Street and Greenmount Avenue.

"I've been here since 3 this morning," a TV reporter said, folding himself into the front seat of his station's van. "But I don't know why. This thing could take all week."

"That's right," said a uniformed cop standing nearby. "I don't know what the holdup is. It ain't like they got a lot of guys ahead of him in line."

"Yeah," somebody else said. "Like, 'Take a number.' "

All of this was considered graveyard humor. It was best to crack wise, to avoid thinking too carefully about the thing that was beginning to happen inside the pen, where John Thanos, killer of three, was waiting to for the execution that finally arrived early this morning.

Thanos was led into the execution room about 12:30 this morning, while a raw wind whipped around the penitentiary and scattery raindrops fell. He had given up all rights to appeals when the end came, and a prison spokesman described him as "very cooperative, aware of his fate." Several protesters stood vigil outside the pen late into the night, carrying candles and decrying the use of capital punishment.

It's a messy business. People talk of philosophical positions on the death penalty, because philosophy gives distance. It doesn't involve the choking of a human windpipe. It has nothing to do with a guy standing there with a beating heart one moment, and the next moment it stops. Philosophy is much less messy.

On Sunday there were demonstrators outside the pen. They staged an anti-death penalty rally, reminding us that murder is murder, and we reduce ourselves to the level of the killer even when we give it a fancy name like capital punishment and let the state do it in a cool and systematic manner.

The demonstrators made their point, and did it with a certain poignancy, and yet there's a nagging discomfort about it. They seemed a little late entering the game. Where were their cries when John Thanos' victims were put into the ground? Where was the grand public grieving for the families of the victims?

Is all this leading to a vote for the death penalty? Not exactly. Most of the traditional arguments favoring it still don't hold up -- it's not likely to be much of a deterrent to others; it's not, on balance, a far greater penalty than simply keeping a killer locked away forever, and thus keeping the blood off our own hands.

But anyone who personalizes the act of murder must feel a certain impulse: If someone in our own family were attacked, we'd want revenge of the highest order. And if we'd want such revenge for ourselves, how can we deny it to someone else? To do so is to adopt a kind of elitist distance from the whole grisly business, to say implicitly that someone else's family doesn't matter as much as your own family.

That's the troubling thing about those who bleed for the condemned, and somehow make the killer's victims an afterthought. They seem to miss a step.

And yet, and yet. . . .

John Thanos' death will bring back none of his victims. It won't make us forget his own twisted, brutalized history. And it won't stop others, bent on killing, from doing their own violence.

Outside the pen yesterday, a veteran city cop glanced toward prison bars and declared, "You kill Thanos, you kill anybody in there, it won't stop a single killing from happening out here. Nobody pulls the trigger thinking he'll get caught.

"But it's a funny thing about what's happening out here. The last five or six years, everybody I've locked up, I swear they're better off inside than they were out here. It's terrible being locked up, but their lives are terrible out here, too."

The cop glanced above him, where the sun was shining. It was a pretty good morning for getting a tan, or tossing a ball, or cracking wise. A good day for keeping a certain distance. The thing happening inside the penitentiary was too painful to think about too closely, and distance was best for everyone.

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