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January|February 2003
Dante and the Death Penalty By Matthew Pearl
A History of Hard Time By Daniel Brook
Farewell, Raymond Chandler By James Fallows
Chapel and State By Sarah Barringer Gordon

Dante and the Death Penalty

How capital punishment fails its audience.

By Matthew Pearl

Americans are conspicuously indecisive about the most decisive punishment in our criminal justice system. Nearly three-quarters of the population support the death penalty, yet nearly half the country is willing to consider eliminating it. Scholars, activists, and lawyers have built up several effective arguments against capital punishment: that it violates the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, that it is distributed capriciously along racial and class lines, and that an innocent person could be put to death.

But these arguments only partially explain our ambivalence about this punishment. There is a deeper problem, one that has less to do with the rights of the accused than with the punishment's effect on us as an audience. Our system's suspicion of "unusual" penalties suggests a desire for predictable criminal justice. But occasionally, particularly at the local level, judges experiment with punishments that seem to come from a distant era, when Puritan schoolmasters might have donned judicial robes on their days off: a sentence of no television for a petty thief under house arrest, a mandatory membership in a book club for a drug abuser, a day of wearing dresses in public for two men who spent a night harassing women. These blips in our system get picked up as novelty items by news wires rather than by criminal law textbooks. But they represent something deeper—a desire to witness a nuanced, expressive retribution. It's a desire the death penalty doesn't always satisfy.

An increasingly frequent objection to capital punishment is that death is "too easy" a punishment for the worst offenders. This objection hasn't received the same attention as other criticisms, in part because it's seen as driven by a desire for vengeance in the wake of particularly horrific crimes. Yet in several recent instances, families of murder victims supported plea bargains that would spare defendants' lives precisely because the death penalty was, in the families' view, too quick and painless for the accused. During the course of Timothy McVeigh's trial and sentencing, the contention that death was "not enough" for the Oklahoma City bomber was expressed by family members, survivors, and pundits alike. "One hundred and sixty-eight people got blown up," one observer said outside the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where McVeigh was executed in the summer of 2001; McVeigh, on the other hand, was just getting "a little needle in the arm."

The more extreme the crime, the less death seems a satisfying punishment. The loudest spokesperson for this view may be the Fox News Channel commentator Bill O'Reilly. Host of one of the most influential cable news programs, O'Reilly holds traditional conservative views on most crime-related issues; he believes in strict drug laws and broad police powers. Yet he opposes capital punishment. "I'm against the death penalty because I don't think it's punitive enough," O'Reilly said in October on a segment of The O'Reilly Factor about the current state of prisons. "If we really cared about violent crimes in this country, which we don't, we would sentence killers, rapists, and major drug dealers to a life of hard labor."

In O'Reilly's abrupt style, this argument might sound reactionary, even brutish. But, whether it is intended to or not, the view echoes a longstanding literary sensibility that demands meaning from punishment. Its most vivid practitioner was Dante Alighieri, a medieval poet whose work anticipated the complex troubles contemporary Americans have with the death penalty. Dante lived the last 20 years of his life in exile, with a sentence of death by fire hanging over his head should he return home to politically turbulent Florence. In the shadow of this sentence, Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, a poem that tells the story of his guided tour through paradise, purgatory, and hell. Inferno, the section that describes hell, is a definitive examination of punishment in all its forms. It's so detailed that in 1588 a young Galileo delivered two lectures in which he estimated the dimensions of Dante's imaginary hell.

Inferno follows Dante as he travels along the "savage path" through nine circles of hell, arranged in the shape of a funnel. As he heads downward, Dante meets various sinners, learns of the progressively worse crimes that brought them there, and witnesses a series of complex and frightening punishments. At the heart of Dante's design of hell is the contrapasso, a term he introduced into Italian to suggest a new way of thinking about punishment. Perhaps best rendered in English as "counterstrike," the word refers to an act of divine justice that redirects the essence of a crime back against the perpetrator, manifesting itself with slight differences in degree and style in each individual case.

The contrapasso differs drastically from the biblical principle of "an eye for an eye," with which it's sometimes confused. In Dante's poem, punishments must arise from the crime itself, not from the damage it has caused. The Hypocrites, for example, wear cloaks of gold encased with lead. The false representations they made while on earth elicit a punishment embodying the sin itself—its deceitful contrast between the external and the internal—rather than an attempt to revisit the effect their sin had on their victims.

In the world of Inferno, death is too blunt an instrument to be of use in punishment. The denizens of Inferno wish for death, or in the language of the damned, a "second death," as an escape, a relief from the circumstances of their eternal incarceration. "Now help, Death, help!" cries a sinner who crashes past Dante through the tangled woods of the seventh circle. In Dante's vision, death is merely a beginning, an entrée into all of the gradations and subtleties of retribution of Inferno. There are no lifeless bodies in hell, because they don't serve Dante's purpose: The state of being dead adds nothing to the visual and symbolic expression of just punishment.

Symbolism is crucial: Dante's punishments are as much visual displays of justice as physical experiences. The indecisive Neutrals, who refused to take sides during their lives, run beneath a symbolically blank banner, a prop that does not appear to enhance the torment of the offenders. Some of the contrapassos in the poem are so imaginatively odd that their expressive qualities easily outweigh their punitive ones.

The Prodigal and Avaricious, occupants of hell's fourth circle, for example, are made to roll weights from opposite directions along their infernal circle; they collide with one another, contest the other group's errors in life, and then reverse directions, only to collide again. This is a bizarre and monotonous choreography, but not a memorably painful one—or at least Dante doesn't show much interest in describing the impact of the punishment on these offenders. Like the gold veneer of the Hypocrites' cloaks, this element of sinners' punishment may add little to their ordeal, but for the punishment's observer it adds a level of meaning—in this case, that all preoccupations with money are both futile and ridiculous.

Performance was once a concern of American justice as well. In the days of public executions (which were discontinued after unseemly rowdiness at a Kentucky hanging in 1936), the gathering of an audience was explicitly encouraged as a means of deterring future crime and restoring confidence in the justice system after a breach of the law.

The Timothy McVeigh case, involving perhaps the highest-profile death sentence handed down by a U.S. court since the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, renewed the debate over whether the most extreme punishment in our system should be viewed by the public. The federal government and most states with the death penalty currently allow victims' families, members of the press, and people chosen by the convict to witness executions. A coalition of Oklahoma City bombing survivors and victims' relatives, whose numbers were too great to fit into the area where McVeigh was to be executed, lobbied the government to provide a limited broadcast of the event. McVeigh himself went a step further and requested that his execution be televised to the public. McVeigh was not the first convict to support the broadcast of his own execution; in 1994, David Lawson, a convicted murderer, cooperated with an unsuccessful effort by the talk show host Phil Donahue to have Lawson's execution televised.

Meanwhile, Entertainment Network, Inc., a Florida-based Internet company, wanted to broadcast McVeigh's execution on the web. The firm claimed a First Amendment right to gather news about the execution, stressing the massive effect McVeigh's crimes had on the country as a whole and its collective need for closure. But a federal court turned the company down, noting that the rights of the public to information about the penal system do not include a promise of unfettered access. The court found that the law's interest in public access to executions could be fulfilled "by proxy."

Attorney General John Ashcroft ultimately permitted closed-circuit broadcast of the execution for survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing and members of their families. Of the more than 1,000 people given the chance to view the execution in June 2001, fewer than 300 took the offer. Some chose other forms of observance, such as mourning at the site of the bombing; others chose not to mark the occasion at all.

Among those who did witness McVeigh's death, few were satisfied by the event. Jay Stratton, who lost his mother in the bombing, said, "I thought I would feel satisfied, but I don't." Susan Ashford, a bombing survivor, commented, "He didn't suffer at all.... I think they should have done the same thing to him as he did in Oklahoma City." Ashford wasn't the only person to express that sentiment. Many victims who gathered for the execution spoke of their wish that he could die 168 times, suffering terribly for each of the bombing's victims.

O'Reilly has argued that "if anti-death penalty advocates could put something else in place that would punish [violent crimes effectively], I think you'd have a lot more converts." But in the wake of a crime like the Oklahoma City bombing, the suffering of so many could never be recreated in the death of one person. McVeigh himself seemed to understand this impossibility; according to his biographer, he had considered choosing as his last words a boastful score: "168 to 1."

Instead of that taunt, however, McVeigh chose as his final statement a poem he had copied out by hand. The poem, written by William Henley, a late 19th century poet, was entitled "Invictus" (Latin for "unconquerable"), and its embattled speaker flaunts his invulnerability to life's pains and punishment. As McVeigh handed this over to the warden, several parents watching the execution in an adjoining room pushed photos of their murdered children up to the glass. They said they hoped the photographs would be the last things McVeigh saw before he died. But the glass was one-way. The event's symbolism was dictated by the punished, not the punishers.

Dante, of course, was never constrained by one-way glass. As a poet, he could orchestrate the symbolism of his punishments with a precision that could never be mimicked in reality. But Dante was aware of the limitations of justice. Even the most terrifying and apparently perfect forms of penalty in Inferno do not guarantee a corresponding pain or sorrow in the criminal. Capaneus, the most flagrant Blasphemer on display on the hot sands of the seventh circle, endures a rainstorm of fire that fails to break his disdain toward God, even after hundreds of years of punishment. Later, Dante meets Master Adam, a notorious counterfeiter, stuck at the bottom of the eighth circle. He suffers greatly, as Dante clearly conveys with a description of the distorted expression on his face. But though he is disfigured by his grotesque punishment of dropsy, with a swollen body as well as a deflated head, his suffering comes far more from his nostalgic memories of the places he loved in the world.

Dante seems to acknowledge in these punishments that no matter how creative, even divine penalties may ultimately be unable to compel penance or inner sorrow in an offender. Living long before a technological era when horrific acts could instantaneously affect thousands or even millions of people, Dante recognized that there may be some crimes for which there are no satisfactory punishments. It is a realization that observers of McVeigh's execution experienced as well. Paul Howell, whose 27-year-old daughter was killed in the Oklahoma bombing, said that he believed many of the grieving survivors had decided to watch the execution in the hope that on the verge of punishment, McVeigh would show remorse. "What I was hoping for, and I'm sure most of us were, was that we could see some kind of, maybe, 'I'm sorry,' " he said. "But we didn't get anything from his face."

Matthew Pearl is the author of The Dante Club, a new historical novel, and the editor of the Modern Library edition of Longfellow's translation of Inferno.

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