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News from inside.

The essence of capital punishment--that grotesque apparatus of "big government"--is that it involves the planned destruction of a human being. In certain countries, and at certain periods of history, this disagreeable consideration can or could be masked by "swift justice." Straight from the "trial" to the firing squad or the stoning field in Iran or Afghanistan, or directly from Newgate to Tyburn in Merrie England, or right from the hanging judge to the necktie party on the old frontier. But the splendors of modern democracy and jurisprudence demand due process with all the fixings. Thus, even the most expeditious execution procedure necessitates "death rows," protracted solitary incarcerations, taunting and tantalizing appeals and reviews, and exquisite last-minute uncertainties. In the great state of Arkansas not many weeks ago, one of a day's batch of three condemned men lay on a gurney for an hour, lethal drip plugged in his arm and ready to go, while the Supreme Court deliberated a last-minute "stay"--before giving the thumbs-down. (The prison authorities gravely announced that doing the job in batches was (a) easier on the taxpayer and (b) easier on the jailhouse staff in that it minimized "stress.")

One result of this obscene practice is that it succeeds in implicating everybody. Not much is going to be found out only when it's too bloody late. We are forced to know what is done with our dollars and in our name, and we can be aware of every stage in the plan. Almost every other "civilized" country in the world, the latest being South Africa, has abolished the penalty of death for this reason, among others. But in the United States of America, a man or woman can first be sentenced to death, then be kept waiting for as much as a decade or more, and in the meantime be subjected to a gradual stripping-away of everything--companionship, contact with friends, relatives or attorneys, reading material, correspondence--that makes even the most burdensome existence supportable. By the time the juice is switched on, or the lethal needle activated, or the cyanide chamber filled, the victim will have been made to understand that this is a regime that prohibits torture only in name.

Comes now the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. I'm not prepared to say for certain that I think this defendant is innocent as charged. But I am prepared to say that the trial he had was a scandal. (See the book by his gifted and noble attorney, Leonard Weinglass, Race for Justice, available from Common Courage Press.) And after the great slagheap of evidence that has accumulated about the Philadelphia Police Department, one would have to be bold indeed to deny that the teensiest question of pigment was involved. (Funny how that keeps comma up with capital punishment.) Abu-Jamal is currently petitioning for a new trial. Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, one of those enthusiastic new Republicans, seems to think that he was elected specifically to put Abu-Jamal to death. Welcome, incidentally, to another feature of the planned destruction, namely the photoop or opinion-poll execution.

Now, Abu-Jamal was unpopular with local police in the first place because of his work as a radio journalist. Since his conviction for murder, in a case where he and the dead officer were both found with drawn and fired guns in adjoining pools of blood, and where highly discrepant stories have been offered by eyewitnesses, he has been treated to a detailed lockdown. The prison and police authorities take a personal interest. They want him to cut his locks in a certain way, even as he waits for them to kill him. The Fraternal Order of Police went to National Public Radio in 1994 demanding that it cancel interviews with Abu-Jamal about his best-selling book Live From Death Row. NPR agreed to the necessary cave-in. In February, in a further burst of vindictiveness, the F.O.P. and Governor Ridge brought pressure to bear on the only radio station in Philadelphia that carries Abu-Jamal's pre-recorded radio program about life on the inside. Temple University, which is seeking more state funding and which is the "switchboard" for Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now in all its Pennsylvania, south Jersey and Delaware outlets, gave in without a whimper. Feeling diversity-deprived on your local waveband? Thanks to this courageous community of scholars, you can tune in to Oliver North or G. Gordon Liddy, or the convict of your choice. But not to a broadcaster who--incidentally, refusing to discuss his own case on the air--brings news from the inside to the outside.

This is no small matter. The prison population in this country is now rising at a very steep rate, and the death-row constituency forms an important minority within it. At least seven states--Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, Missouri, Rhode Island, Indiana and Virginia--have recently forbidden or severely curtailed access by the press and media to this "other America." It is, thus, not just a question of the right of the inmate to speak. It is the right of the free citizen to listen and learn that is also being abridged.

In his broadcasts, Abu-Jamal has spoken of being confined for all but two hours a week in a room the size of a lavatory (and replicating its functions). He has detailed the schedule by which he has been readied for death. (No one denies, for instance, that the authorities illegally intercepted mail from his lawyer.) He has spoken sarcastically of the way that rich men like O.J. Simpson and John DuPont are told in advance that the death penalty will not be sought. I don't know if he has read "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," but there Wilde said: "Each narrow cell in which we dwell/Is a foul and dark latrine." He also wrote, about the policy of silence and secrecy and censorship:

With bars they blur the gracious moon,

And blind the goodly sun:

And they do well to hide their Hell,

For in it things are done

That Son of God nor son of Man

Ever should look upon!
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Title Annotation:Minority Report; capital punishment
Author:Hitchens, Christopher
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 31, 1997
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