I read a piece in the LA Times this morning by Steve Lopez. He went to talk to prisoners about the pending execution of Tookie Williams and found that most of the prisoners he talked to either had not heard of Tookie's message of personal redemption or his children's books or if they had heard of him they hadn't gotten the message. In some cases, they finally got the message when they were facing life in prison. It was an interesting piece because not only did it point out that perhaps those Tookie Williams is said to be helping are not really being helped, it reminded me very much of a film I love and it pointed out to me why film can be a true looking glass into our world.
Angels With Dirty Faces was a 1938 film staring James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart. It was directed by Michael Curtiz (who later went on to direct, among others, Casablanca.) It was the story of two men, a gangster, Rocky, played by Cagney and a Priest, Jerry, played by O'Brien who grew up together but lead vastly different lives. It's also the story of a group of kids (The Dead End Kids) who idolize Rocky (Bogart played a supporting role.) The part of it that speaks today and the part of it that Lopez's piece reminded me of was at the very end. Rocky is on death row awaiting execution when Jerry comes to see him. He tells Rocky, who remains cocky and defiant even hours before his execution that he can have a heart, that he can basically redeem himself at the end, by dying a coward - making a big show of being afraid to die. Rocky is a hero to the kids who are headed toward a gangster life and he will be idolized in death. But if he "dies yellow," then, maybe the kids will see things differently. Maybe they'll see that life is worth living the right way.
Though I am opposed to the death penalty (my libertarian leanings just refuse to let me wrap my mind around the State taking someone's life, regardless of the crime,) I still feel a little uneasy about this case or at least the furor surrounding it. The calls for clemency all revolve around Tookie's alleged jail house redemption (though not around his claims of innocence, which I find curious) and of his so-called value to society. He's written children's books, after all, trying to dissuade kids from a life of crime (though of dubious value if the Lopez piece is accurate - who, besides death penalty opponents is reading these books?) and has been nominated for Nobel Prizes. But it strikes me as a little ingenuous. What is the message we send with this? You can live a life of crime, you can rob and murder, but if you write a few kids books it's alright, the world will come to your aid in your final moment and save you. Who, exactly, is going to be dissuaded from a life of crime by that?
It presents one of the problems with capital punishment in a modern world and it's exemplified by this film. It's an issue that isn't in the film itself, it isn't even in the backstory, but it is an issue that is within the setting of the film. It is not the issue of whether Tookie Williams is executed or not executed (though I imagine that it is very much the issue for Tookie,) it isn't the issue of whether or not he is truly redeemed, it isn't the issue of a few kids books or a Nobel nomination. It's the issue of our society's attitude over this and over him. It's an issue over the message we're sending. The message from "Angels with Dirty Faces" is one of pride, one of honor and one of courage. It is also a message of redemption, but the redemption in that film is not set against a demonstration of sympathy. Rocky, in that film, went to the chair an intentional coward (we think, though it's left ambiguous in the film,) a different kind of courage, as Father Jerry in the film calls it, and by doing so accepted responsibility for his life and his actions. It is his mea culpa. It was a hugely dramatic moment and clearly pulls the rug out from under a group of starry-eyed youngsters (the Dead End Kids) who see themselves as little Rockies. That, and not his defiance, showed the kids that the life they were headed down was wrong. It sent the message in a huge way - their hero was gone and he died not during the execution, but in the moments before it. What made that story work and what made that message poignant - and why it is important today - was the fact that Rocky was going to be punished for the crimes he committed. It was black and white, cut and dry, there was no way out because society at the time said - this is how it is, you break the law and you pay - that was the setting. It was a lesson that was far stronger than what's going on today. The kids were able to see it because it was strong and it was clear. It was not cluttered by arguments over the morality of Rocky's life or the morality of his death. He was wrong. What's more is he was allowed to be wrong.
In that sense it presents a problem with the death penalty. Death penalty opponents are so vociferous in their convictions that they are (or seem to be) willing to overlook the crime and send the message to kids (and perhaps other adults) that no matter what you do we're going to protect you - because society is wrong - it is society that is committing the crime. (It also makes life in prison seem like the easy way out.) The message that's being sent is not whether Tookie's life of crime was right or wrong but whether society is right or wrong. Tookie is the poster boy (for both sides, with the victims being overlooked in both cases.)
The sad part is that the kids who are supposed to be helped by this, the kids who are supposed to be dissuaded from a gang life, either by Tookie's books or by the deterrence of capital punishment are being given an entirely different message. The message that they are being given is ambiguous at best, ingenuous at worst. Clearly the case for deterrence is weak and clearly the only people reading Tookie's books are Nobel committees. The only way this will be solved - the only way these kids are going to get the message - is if society, as it was in 1938 in Angels With Dirty Faces, is all on the same page. But that was a long time ago. In that world there was no debate (or very little) regarding capital punishment. In this world there is. It is the debate that is the problem - it is the debate that is obscuring the nature of punishment - that is obscuring the message - and there is only one solution. Until the death penalty is off the table there can be, in our world, no true deterrence, no true punishment - there can be no clear message.