Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Nobel Peace Prize 2011: Shared by 3 Women Peace & Human Rights Activists

The Norwegian Nobel Committee (appointed, as mandated by Alfred Nobel’s will, by the Storting, or Norwegian Parliament) has announced that for 2011, the Nobel Peace Prize will be shared equally by three (3) women, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”  The Nobel Peace Prize has often been shared by two individuals (or an individual and an organization), rarely by three individuals, and never by more than three individuals.

Each of these women has long been involved in nonviolent human rights struggle, especially for the rights, safety, and well-being of women and children.  They have also pushed for women to be treated by nations and international organizations as equal participants in peacebuilding efforts, especially post-conflict peacebuilding. This goes against the long history of women and their concerns being ignored in the normal negotiating process that leads to peace treaties.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938-) is the current President of Liberia, the first woman to be democratically elected head of state of any African nation. A Harvard-educated economist, Sirleaf had served as Assistant Finance Minister in the administration of William Tolbert from 1972-1973. Later she was Finance Minister from 1979 to 1980, when the democratic government was overthrown in a coup d’etat by the dictator Samuel Doe. Sirleaf fled the country, one of only 4 members of Tolbert’s cabinet to escape execution, and took jobs with international agencies. She returned to Liberia and was placed under house arrest and had to flee again. At the outbreak of the first Liberian civil war in 1997, she initially supported insurgent leader Charles Taylor’s fight against the dictator Samuel Doe, but later repudiated and denounced him as his war crimes became public knowledge.   A second Liberian war raged from 1999-2003.  At the end of this, Sirleaf returned to Liberia, supported the transitional government’s de-armament process, the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee and efforts to heal returned child soldiers (who had been both victims and victimizers). She ran for President under the new constitution in 2005 and won. Two decades of civil war had left Liberia with no infrastructure, nearly universal unemployment, raging ethnic and tribal animosities, and mountains of debt. Sirleaf managed to get the international community to cancel almost all of Liberia’s debt and has encouraged international investment. Using Liberia mineral wealth, she has restored some of the infrastructure (most of the capital of Monrovia now has electricity and running water, again) and has helped to re-build schools and hospitals throughout the country. She signed into law a Freedom of Information Act, the first of its kind in Africa.  But, Liberians, like Americans, think presidents can achieve miracles overnight so Sirleaf is nowhere near as popular at home as she is admired abroad. After all, unemployment remains about 80%!  Also, though Sirleaf has waged battle against corruption, it has proven to be difficult to stamp out and several of her cabinet members have been fired for scandals.  Further, many believe she should have worked more on reconciliation between ethnic groups and less on rebuilding the institutions of government and the nation’s infrastructure.  So, Sirleaf is far from being assured of reelection next month (and she broke a 2005 campaign promise to serve only 1 term if elected). But whether or not she is reelected, the 72 year old Sirleaf is well-deserving of being a Nobel Peace Laureate.

  Leymah Roberta Gbowee (b. 1972-) is known as “Liberia’s Peace Warrior.” A mother of six (6) children, Gbowee is a human rights and women’s rights campaigner. Born in central Liberia, she moved to the capital, Monrovia, at 17–just as the first Liberian Civil War broke out! She trained as trauma counselor and worked with the child soldiers of Charles Taylor’s rebel army.  Surrounded by death and destruction, Gbowee realized that if the country were to ever have peace, it would have to be mothers who brought it–mothers tired of seeing their dreams for their children shattered by the horrors of war.  Gbowee formed the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace in 2002. She organized the Christian and Muslim women of Liberia to pray together for peace and to engage in nonviolent demonstrations for an end to the civil war.  Gbowee, a Lutheran Christian, spread her movement to the churches and mosques and they forced a meeting with then-president Charles Taylor, getting him to attend a peace conference held in Ghana in 2002. Together with fellow Lutheran woman Comfort Freeman, Gbowee founded Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), whose nonviolent actions finally brought an end to the Second Liberian War in 2003, the abdication and exile of Charles Taylor, and a transitional government that paved the way for democratic elections in 2005. Wearing white t-shirts (to symbolize peace), Gbowee and the women of WIPNET marched by the thousands throughout Liberia. They formed the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which has been used to spread the women’s peace movement to other African nations such as Sudan (now South Sudan) and Zimbabwe where the women are also using prayer and nonviolent tactics to petition for peace and human rights.

  Tarwakkol Karmen (1979-), a Muslim feminist and human rights activist in Yemen, represents the Nobel Committee’s acknowledgement of the “Arab Spring.” She is a journalist by profession and has chafed for years under press restrictions in Yemen’s dictatorship.  She is a senior member of al-Islah , the main opposition party in Yemen. In 2005 she founded Women Journalists Without Chains, an organization dedicated to democracy and freedom of the press.  As soon as Tunisia’s nonviolent movement toppled its dictator, Karmen pushed for a similar movement in Yemen. Photos of her heroes (Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela) adorn her home. In a country wear most women are forced to wear all-black niqueb,  or full head covering, Karmen wears an open-faced head scarf, usually white with flowers, as a symbol of women’s dignity and defiance to the dictator Salleh and the oppressive culture.  She insists that Islam itself does not demand the niqeb, but that it is a sign of outmoded patriarchal culture, instead.  She has pushed for laws against the wedding of women younger than 17 and against violence against women and children.  Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Karmen has led in march after march in Yemen’s capital, been arrested and beaten. Her life and the lives of her children have been threatened by the government, but she presses onward. To the nonviolent pro-democracy movement, Karmen is known as “The Mother of the Revolution,”–a revolution that is, at present, incomplete since Salleh clings to power by the use of massive violence against his own people–as he done for 33 years, now.  Karmen and her fellow Yemeni nonviolent revolutionaries are undeterred.  She has dedicated her Nobel Prize to the entire movement. (Many within the movement have proposed her for president in a post-Salleh Yemen, which would make her the first democratically-elected female leader in any Muslim-majority nation, if it happens.)

Largely because of its longevity and the large monetary awards accompanying it, the Nobel Peace Prize is the most widely recognized and prestigious peace prize –despite ambiguities in Alfred Nobel’s will and oddities in the Norwegian Nobel Committee that have led to some bizarre recipients (e.g., Teddy Roosevelt, Nicholas Murray Butler, Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, & Yitzhak Rabin) and even stranger omissions (e.g., Mohandas K. Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dom Helder Camara, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J.).  The committee has too often neglected women. Prior to this year, only 12 women have won the Nobel Peace Prize in its over 100 year history.  But this year’s prizes are to be celebrated by all who believe in nonviolence, human rights, democracy, and the full equality of women.  I look forward to watching the ceremonies in Oslo this December and reading their speeches and lectures. I pray continued success to these brave women and the movements they lead.


October 8, 2011 Posted by | heroes, human rights, Just Peacemaking, justice, Nobel Peace Prize, nonviolence, nonviolent activism, peace, Peace & Justice Awards, peacemakers, political violence, violence | Leave a comment

A Brief History of Denominational Peace Fellowships (U.S.)

People connect to the work of peace and justice, if they do, at the heart of their personal identities. For most people, throughout history, the heart of their identities is intimately connected to their religious convictions. Even for the non-religious, some controlling philosophy or ideology substitutes for a religious identity.  So, denominational peace fellowships developed early in the 20th C. as ways for people to connect their faiths to their work for peace. Many of these denominational peace fellowships are directly connected to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and others have informal connections.  This history is for the U.S. scene, although there are denominational peace fellowships around the world..

The “historic peace churches” (Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, Brethren/Dunkers) have been normatively pacifist for centuries,but  they were actually slower to develop peace fellowships than other denominations. Further, because each had strands of tradition that included “separation from the world,” they were often hesitant to join ecumenical or interfaith peace groups.  Thus, the beginning of peace fellowships in the U.S. came from groups whose majorities were not pacifist–and could even be hostile to peacemaking activities.  The peace fellowships of Protestant denominations came first.  In the aftermath of World War I, a huge revulsion toward war swept through the U.S. and its churches, especially, but not only through its mainline liberal Protestant churches. It is safe to say that the years 1919-1940 constitute the period in which Christian pacifism came the closest to being the majority view of U.S. Christians.  (Non-Christians in the U.S. also adopted anti-war views in larger numbers than at any time since the U.S.-Mexican War of the 1830s. Pacifists and near-pacifists would not be in the U.S. in anywhere close to the numbers between the World Wars until thel late 1960s as the Vietnam War dragged on seemingly forever.) One strong motivation for the formation of denominational peace fellowships was the protection of the rights of conscientious objectors.  Most conscientious objectors to World War I were imprisoned for the length of the U.S. involvement in the war and the peace fellowships wanted to protect the rights of conscientious objectors if and when another war came. If you are not a member of one of the “Historic Peace Churches” (Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, Brethren), then participation in a denominational peace fellowship was one of the ways to show a military draft board that one objected to participation in war as a matter of religious conviction.

The earliest denominational peace fellowship was the Methodist Peace Fellowship which formed in the 1920s.  The founder of Methodism in 18th C. Britain, John Wesley, was not a pacifist (because he was too much a supporter of the Church of England as a state church), but he came close–considering war to be the most visible sign of human falleness and sinfulness.  American Methodists, however, had been strong supporters of the American Revolutionary War and the influence of Wesley’s views on war and slavery (which he condemned in the strongest terms) was slim in the years when American Methodism strove to prove itself as a truly AMERICAN denomination.  But the recovery of a Christian peace witness began with Methodist participation in the Abolitionist movement–thanks to the huge leadership of Quakers in that movement. After the Civil War, many Methodists saw pacifism as a natural outgrowth of Wesleyan emphasis on “holiness” or “entire sanctification.” (Indeed, numerous Wesleyan Holiness denominations split off from mainline Methodism out of a sense that the latter was losing this emphasis.  Many of these Holiness offshoot groups, e.g., Free Methodists, the Church of God [non-Pentecostal], the Wesleyan Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Brethren-in-Christ[a denomination that combined influences from Anabaptism and from Wesleyan Pietism], and the Evangelical United Brethren [a group that would, in the 1950s, merge with the Methodist Church to form the United Methodist Church], were pacifist–at least at their beginnings.) The rise of the Boston Personalist movement in theology, and the Social Gospel, increased the rise of Christian pacifism among American Methodists until, by World War I, pacifism was ALMOST a majority view in American Methodism and the Methodist Episcopal Church was recognized as a “peace church” by the U.S. military. (The Methodist Episcopal Church–South, formed as a split in American Methodism over slavery, had fewer pacifists, but it was still a sizable minority.) The strength of the pacifist witness in American Methodism waned beginning with World War II, although numerous Methodist pacifists continue to this day. Still, the Methodist Peace Fellowship itself became increasingly weaker in the 1980s and died out altogether in the 1990s.  Organizationally, the witness of gospel nonviolence in the United Methodist Church has been maintained by the Methodist Federation for Social Action, but many of the more evangelical United Methodist pacifists avoid joining MFSA because of its perceived theological liberalism–especially its strongly inclusive stance toward LGBT folks and its support for legal and accessible abortion as part of its commitment to women’s procreative choice. (Both are stands largely rejected by evangelical Protestants, including evangelical United Methodists.) A “Pan-Wesleyan” peace fellowship began in the 1980s to fill the gap left by the death of the MPF. Methodists United for Peace with Justice began in 1987 as a response to the United Methodist Bishops’ pastoral letter, In Defense of Creation, which condemned nuclear weapons and called for the development of theologies of “just peace.” Membership is open not only to United Methodists, but to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the African Methodist Episcopal Church-Zion (AMEZ), the Christian Methodist Church (CMC), the Free Methodist Church, and the Free Methodist Church. Because MUPJ takes no stand on LGBT issues or abortion, evangelical pacifists among these branches of the Methodist family are more likely to join it.

The oldest denominational peace fellowship in the U.S. in continual existence is the Disciples Peace Fellowship, founded in 1935 as  the peace fellowship of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the more mainline liberal branch of the Stone-Campbell movement that grew out of the Second Great Awakening in 19th C. America.  Many early leaders in this movement, such as Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) and David Lipscomb (1831-1917) were pacifist.  As the movement splintered along both cultural and theological lines into the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), pacifism was strong among all branches until World War II, though only the Disciples formed a denominational peace fellowship or took part in ecumenical efforts to end war or make peace. (Note, outside the U.S., denominations related to the Stone-Campbell movement are not divided along a liberal-conservative axis. In the UK and Australia, for instance, the Churches of Christ relate to the U.S. Disciples, as does the Evangelical Christian Church of Canada.) After World War II, pacifism declined sharply in all branches of the Stone-Campbell movement, though a strong pacifist minority remains in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  By contrast, the independent Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ have become some of the most militarist of all U.S. Christians, with few remembering the pacifist roots of many of their early leaders. (There HAS been an effort by Stone-Campbell movement historians to recover this early witness, the major result of which has been the beginnings of a peace studies program at  Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN (related to the Churches of Christ), though most of the professors teaching in the Institute for Conflict Resolution do not share the pacifism of David Lipscomb.) One strength of the Disciples Peace Fellowship is its program of “peace interns” who spread gospel nonviolence to youth at church camps.

The Episcopal Peace Fellowship began in 1939 and today connects with the global Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.

The denominational peace fellowship I know best, of course, is also the peace organization with which I have been most deeply involved:The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North AmericaIn its current form, BPFNA was founded in Louisville, KY in 1984 out of a meeting of Southern Baptist peacemakers with American (Northern) Baptists who belonged to the (Northern) Baptist Peace Fellowship which was founded in 1940.  The BPFNA is a grassroots Baptist peace fellowship that has members in at least 15 different Baptist denominations in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. It also has strong ties to the British Baptist Peace Fellowship (founded in 1941) and similar groups around the world.  One does not need to be a pacifist to be a member of the BPFNA, just committed to the call on all Christians to be peacemakers, but it is safe to say that BPFNA gathers together more Christian pacifists in Baptist life than any other organization. BPFNA has ties to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and is represented on the boards of Christian Peacemaker Teams, and Christian Peace Witness for Iraq.

Other Christian peace fellowships include: Adventist Peace Fellowship (formed in October 2001 as a recovery of earlier–mostly lost–pacifist convictions among Seventh Day Adventists and in response to American militarism following the attacks of 11 September 2001), Brethren Peace Fellowship (1946, the ecumenical and interfaith peace witness of the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic peace churches), The Catholic Peace Fellowship (1965, renewed in 2001, with a primary focus on protecting and spreading conscientious objection to all war among U.S. Catholics), Church of God Peace Fellowship (1964 with roots in the Interracial Fellowship founded in the 1930s and deeper roots going back to the initial pacifist witness of the Church of God [Anderson, IN–Non-Pentecostal] in the 19th C.), Lutheran Peace Fellowship (1994–members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the USA), Orthodox Peace Fellowship (founded during the Vietnam War and re-launched in 1984; connects Orthodox Christians globally in peacemaking. Pacifism is not required, but active work for peace is seen as “not optional” for Christians), Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace with Justice (founded in 2002 as The Pentecostal Peace Fellowship and quickly expanding to the Pentecostal and Charismatic Peace Fellowship, the current name was adopted to stress both the essential connection of peace and justice in the gospel, and to avoid confusion with another peace group listed below; early Pentecostals were pacifist but this witness was progressively lost after World War I. PCPWJ attempts to recover, deepen, and expand the radical nonviolence of early Pentecostalism.), Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (1940s).

Noticeably missing (considering the peace witness of their roots) is any peace fellowship of Moravians, the Evangelical Covenant Church, or the Evangelical Free Church, or the Church of the Nazarene.  Also noticeably missing (considering its many pacifists) is a peace fellowship related to the United Church of Christ.

Of the Historic Peace Churches, only the Church of the Brethren has a Brethren Peace Fellowship, but it is small these days and has no website. The peace witness of the Church of the Brethren is most strongly expressed organizationally in On Earth Peace, the official peacemaking program of the Church of the Brethren.  Likewise the Mennonite Central Committee (founded in 1920), which unites many different Mennonite and Amish groups in the U.S. and Canada on matters of missions, hunger and disaster relief, development aid, and peacebuilding, performs many of the functions of a grassroots peace fellowship in traditions that are not rooted in a historic peace witness throughout all parts of the Mennonite identity.  In the largest of these groups, the Mennonite Church, USA, there is also a Mennonite Peace & Justice Support Network, linking and supporting the peace work of Mennonite congregations, much like peace fellowships do in other traditions.  Among Friends/Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee , whose history I sketched briefly in an earlier post in this series, acts as a peace fellowship and is an official affiliate of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

After World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust (with its roots in centuries of Christian anti-Semitism) awakened ecumenical Christian pacifists to the need for interfaith peace work.  The International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) broadened its identity and membership basis from Christian pacifists to interfaith pacifists–as did several of IFOR’s national branches such as the U.S. FOR. (Other branches, such as in the UK, remained specifically Christian.) This led to “denominational” peace fellowships connected to the FOR (USA) from other world religions, beginning with the Jewish Peace Fellowship (founded in 1941 to support Jewish conscientious objectors).  Today, such peace fellowships in other faiths include The Buddhist Peace Fellowship (1968), The Muslim Peace Fellowship (Ansar as-Salam, founded in 1994), and the Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship. (Both Unitarians and Universalists began in the 19th C. as liberal Christian denominations and several prominent Unitarians were among the founders of the U. S. branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. But UUs today do not widely consider themselves to be Christian, but an interfaith collection of “free congregations” with Christian roots. So, I list the UUPF in this interfaith section and not among the Christian denominational peace fellowships.)   To date, I know of no Hindu peace fellowship, no Jain or Sikh peace fellowship, no Ba’hai peace fellowship,  Other interfaith peace groups with less connection to the FOR and Christian denominational peace fellowships will be profiled in future posts.

September 4, 2011 Posted by | AFSC, blog series, Buddhism, Christian Denominations, Friends (Quakers), heroes, Islam, Judaism, Methodists, Non Christian World Religions, nonviolence, nonviolent activism, pacifism, peace, peacemakers, Pentecostals, violence | Leave a comment

Anti-Death Penalty Organizations in the U.S.

I.  Faith-Based Groups

II. National Organizations

III. State Groups

May 29, 2011 Posted by | capital punishment, civil rights, ethics, human rights, nonviolence, political violence, violence | 4 Comments

The Death Penalty Around the World

In this second installment, I am still mapping the geography of capital punishment before turning to arguments about it.  Looking at the U.S., we saw 15 states (plus the District of Columbia) without the death penalty and 35 states (plus the federal government and the U.S. military) with the death penalty.  But several of those states seemed poised to eliminate it: In 2010, Connecticut passed repeal, but it was vetoed by the governor.  The same thing had happened to New Hampshire in 2000 and a threat by the governor to veto it led to repeal failing in the 2010 NH senate after passing the house.  Colorado came within 2 senate votes of passing repeal.  Illinois’ legislature has passed repeal and waits to see if the governor will sign it. Repeal movements are getting stronger in states as diverse as Nebraska, South Dakota, Oregon, Washington State, and even Kentucky and Tennessee.  So, how does this compare to the situation globally?

As shown in this nice color-coded map, there are 139 nations which have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.  Of that number:  95 nations (including the entire European Union, Canada, Mexico, much of Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and much of the Southern Cone of Africa) have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.  Many of these have gone further and changed their constitutions to make certain that a crime wave cannot easily restore the death penalty.  Another 9 countries (Bolivia, Brazil, the Cook Islands, El Salvador, Israel, Fiji, Kyrgystan (!), Latvia, and Peru) have eliminated the death penalty for ordinary crimes (i.e., reserving it for war crimes or political assassinations or murders in the military).  An additional 35 countries have the death penalty on the books, but have not executed anyone in over 10 years and have not sought the death penalty for longer. (Death penalty opponents still work to get this “practical” abolitionist countries to go further and eliminate the penalty from the books.)

That leaves only 58 countries where the death penalty is retained in both law and ordinary practice. 

Five (5) countries account for the vast majority of executions yearly.  Those five nations are China ( 470 executions in 2007, 1,718 excutions in 2008, and thousands in 2009); Iran (317 in ’07, 346 in ’08, and 120+ in ’09); Saudi Arabia (143 in ’07, 102 in ’08, and 69+ in ’09); Pakistan (135 in ’07; 36 in ’08; 120 in ’09) (Pakistan sometimes trades off with Iraq, the Sudan, or Syria), and the United States (42 in ’07, ’37 in ’08, and 52 in ’09). The United States should look in shame at being regularly listed alongside the world’s greatest abusers of human rights!

The other trend to note globally is that the direction and momentum is toward abolition.  Since 1976 (the year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia that states with re-written capital punishment laws that are “fair” and not “arbitrary in application” could resume executions), 81 nations have abolished the death penalty–and the pace is increasing.  As an American, I find it embarrassing that my country has a more ruthless punishment than Turkey (abolished in ’04), Kyrgystan, Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, or Bosnia-Herzogovina!  Hong Kong won the right to remain death-penalty free even after being returned to China in 1997!

This isolation hurts the U.S. in fighting crime and terrorism since abolitionist countries usually will not extradite accused criminals to countries that retain the death penalty unless they have assurances that the person will not be executed.  On December 10, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted for a global moratorium on executions (109 “yes” votes, 41 “no” votes, 35 abstentions, and 7 absences).

January 31, 2011 Posted by | blog series, capital punishment, ethics, human rights, U.S. politics, violence | 1 Comment

U. S. States and the Death Penalty

Yes, Gentle Readers, I am following the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and throughout the Middle East VERY closely. But other than my prayers for the protesters, I don’t have anything blog-worthy to say. I always support people’s right to be free and always believe in nonviolence and always pray that toppling dictators will actually lead to liberal democracy rather than anarchy, failed states, new dictators, or theocracies.  One never knows.  Self-determination is messy. So, I offer my prayers and I wait to see, and I hope my govt. and others will not stand with the dictators but with the people. But I don’t fool myself into thinking that I have any insight into this that one cannot find better elsewhere.  So, I will resist the urge to pontificate and simply continue to pray.

But the death penalty is a moral and legal issue that I have followed since my teens. I’ve written on it many times.  So, I want to write a series of posts on the moral and legal dimensions of the death penalty. I will be making a case for abolition. Now, I am a pacifist and, as such, believe that lethal violence or deadly force is always and everywhere wrong, whether done by private individuals or the state.  But I won’t be arguing the case on pacifist grounds. If one is pacifist, one already believes the death penalty to be wrong.  So, I will be arguing against the death penalty in terms that should apply to those who believe violence is sometimes justifiable.  I want to argue against the death penalty from several directions over the next month:  Christian theological arguments; arguments from other faiths (since we live in a pluralistic democracy); arguments based on legal justice; arguments based on constitutional and international law; sociological arguments concerning what does and what does not lower violent crime rates; even economic arguments (loathe as I am morally to put a pricetag on human life) and the science that shows that we convict the innocent and have sent the innocent to death row.  Because abolishing the death penalty is considered a “liberal” viewpoint and I am a political liberal (of sorts–a democratic socialist), I want to pay particular attention to conservative arguments against capital punishment, including the testimony of police officers, prison officials, and conservative political and religious leaders. I also want to pay close attention to victims of crime, especially the family members of murder victims.

Before doing any of that, however, I want to spend this first post in the series describing the geographical lay of the land, so to speak, in the U.S.  My next post will map out the other countries which have the death penalty, those which have abolished it, and those which have it on the books, but have not executed anyone in a decade or more.  Getting a sense of “where we are” in the world may help us see where we need to be going.  Since I live in the United States, one of the few industrialized nations with the death penalty, I will start with a state by state analysis here. Note: I indicate the number of women on death row in states with the death penalty, not because I am sexist, but because both historically and currently there is more resistance to executing women than men.  Governors and presidents used to grant clemencies routinely, without it being a sign of being “soft on crime,” but since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia) that executions could continue, few governors have been willing to grant clemency for fear of political consequences.

In alphabetical order, these are the states which do not have the death penalty:

  1. Alaska: Had executed only 12 people in it’s history (both as a territory and state) prior to the Supreme Court’s temporary ban on the death penalty in 1972 and did not seek to reinstate the death penalty after the ban was lifted in 1976, even though it is usually considered a conservative state. Only has 3.1 murders per 100,000 people per year.
  2. District of Columbia: (A federal city which has a greater population than Idaho and needs to become a state with full representation in Congress.) Had executed 118 people before 1972 and zero since, never seeking to reinstate the death penalty after 1976. Averages 24 murders per 100,000 people.
  3. Hawai’i:  Had executed 49 people prior to 1972and none after 1976, not seeking to reinstate the death penalty.  Averages 1.7 murders per 100,000 people (which is not the impression one would get watching Hawai’i Five-O).
  4. Iowa: 45 executions before 1972, zero since then, not seeking reinstatement of the death penalty.
  5. Massachussetts: Prior to 1972: 345 executions. After 1976: Zero.  There have been a few attempts to reinstate the death penalty, but they have never garnered much popular support nor made it very far in the state legislature.  2.6 murders per 100,000 people.
  6. Maine:  Prior to 1972: 20 executions. After 1976: Zero.  2 murders per 100,000 people.
  7. Michigan: Prior to 1972: 13 executions. After 1976: Zero.  6.3 murders per 100,000 people.
  8. Minnesota: Prior to 1972: 66 executions. After 1976:  1.4 murders per 100, 000 people.
  9. New Jersey: Prior to 1972: 361. After 1976: Zero.  New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982 but did not execute anyone.  In 2007, the New Jersey legislature abolished the death penalty.  The governor then commuted the sentences of the 8 people on death row.  Despite its reputation as a haven for organized crime, there are only 3.4 murders per 100,000 people in NJ.
  10. New Mexico:  Prior to 1972:  73 executions. After 1976: 1.  New Mexico reinstated the death penalty in 1979, but did seldom sentenced anyone to death and did not execute anyone until the year 2001.  In that time, 4 innocent persons were freed from death row and 5 cases had enough doubts that a series of governors, both Republican and Democratic, granted clemency and commuted the sentences to life. In 2009, the New Mexewico legislature abolished the death penalty and Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), signed the bill into law. Because the law was not retroactive, New Mexico still has 2 people on death row, but there is a campaign to urge the governor to commute their sentences.  New Mexico has 8.7 murders per 100,000 people.
  11. New York:  Prior to 1972: 1,130 executions. After 1976: 0.  There was little desire for years in NY to reinstate the death penalty, but the rising crime rate of the 198os and early 1990s, led the legislature to reinstate the death penalty in 1995, although it could not be imposed for accessories to the crime, as in many states.  It was seldom sought and juries seldom imposed it and no one had been executed. In 2004, the New York Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty violated the state constitution and it was struck down. There are 4 murders per 100,000 people in NY.
  12. North Dakota: Prior to 1972:  8 executions. After 1976: 0.  The death penalty was never reinstated after 1976.  Murder rate: 0.5 per 100,000 people.
  13. Rhode Island:  Prior to 1972: 52 executions. After 1976: 0.  The death penalty was never reinstated. There are 2.9 murders per 100,000 people in Rhode Island.
  14. Vermont: Prior to 1972: 26 executions.  After 1976: o.  The death penalty was never reinstated.  There are 1.1 murders per 100,000 people.
  15. Wisconsin:  Prior to 1972: 1 execution. After 1976: 0. The death penalty was never reinstated. There are 2.5 murders per 100,o00 people.
  16. West Virginia:  Prior to 1972: 155 executions. After 1976: 0.  There have been a few attempts to reinstate the death penalty in West Virginia, but they have not gotten very far.  There are 3.3 murders per 100,000 people.

In alphabetical order, here are the states which have the death penalty:

  1. Alabama: Prior to 1972:  708 executions.  After 1976: 50 executions.  The death penalty was reinstated in 1976. There are currently 201 people on death row, including 5 women.  1 clemency was granted since 1976 and 6 innocent people freed from death row.  The first execution after reinstatement was in 1982.  There are 6.9 murders per 100,000 people.
  2. Arkansas: Prior to 1972: 478 executions. After 1976: 27. The death penalty law was reinstated in 1973, but could not go into effect until 1976.  The first post-reinstatement execution was in 1990. There are currently 42 people on death row.  One clemency has been granted and zero innocent people freed from death row.  6.2 murders per 100,000.
  3. Arizona: Prior to 1972: 104 executions. After 1976: 24.  The death penalty was reinstated in 1973 but could not legally take effect until 1976. 135 people currently on death row, including 2 women.  First execution after reinstatement was in 1992.  8 people freed from death row due to innocence.  0 clemencies granted. 5.8 murders per 100,000. 
  4. California: Prior to 1972: 709 executions. After 1976: 13.  The death penalty was reinstated in 1974 but could not legally take effect until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement: 1992.  Current death row population is 607 including 16 women.  3 innocent persons freed from death row; zero clemencies.  5.3 murders per 100,000 people.
  5. Colorado: Prior to 1972:  101 executions. Since 1976: 1 execution.  The death penalty was reinstated in 1975 but could not legally take effect until after 1976.  First (and only) execution since reinstatement: 1997.  Current death row population: 3.  Since abolition, Colorado seems to like the death penalty in theory more than practice, and even in theory support is waning. In 2010, the Colorado legislature fell just 2 votes shy of abolishing the death penalty.  The governor, a devout Catholic who knows his church is against the death penalty, was seriously considering signing the bill if it passed. Murder rate per 100,000 is 3.5.
  6. Connecticut: Prior to 1972: 126 executions. Since 1976: 1 execution. The death penalty was reinstated in 1973, but could not take effect until 1976. Date of first (and only) execution since reinstatement: 1994.  Current death row population: 10. In 2010, the CT state legislature narrowly abolished the death penalty, but the bill was vetoed by the governor and there was nowhere close to the votes to override her veto.  CT legislators say they will try again.  3 murders per 100,000 people.
  7. Delaware: Prior to 1972:  62 executions. After 1976: 14 executions.  Current death row population: 19.  The death penalty was reinstated in 1974, but did not take effect legally until after 1976.  First post-reinstatement execution: 1992.  4.6 murders per 100,000 people.
  8. Florida:  Prior to 1972:  314 executions.  After 1976:  69 executions.  Current death row population:  398, including 2 women.  First execution after reinstatement: 1979.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 23. Number of clemencies: 6.  There is an annual average of 5.5 murders per 100,000 people.
  9. Georgia: Prior to 1972:  950 executions. After 1976: 49 executions.  Current death row population: 106, including 1 woman. Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until after 1976.  First post-reinstatement execution: 1983.  5 innocent persons freed from death row.  7 clemencies granted.  Note: Georgia may be thought to have some kind of special love affair with capital punishment since both the Supreme Court decision which state that state death penalties, as then written, were unconstitutional (Furman v. Georgia, 1972) and the decision which allowed states with new (and supposedly fairer/less arbitrary) death penalty statutes to resume executions (Gregg v. Georgia, 1976) were in response to Georgia cases. But it is clear that Georgia has sentenced to death and executed less than several other states.
  10. Idaho:  Prior to 1972: 26 executions. After 1976: 1 execution.  Current death row population: 17, including 1 woman.  Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement: 1994.  1.4 murders per 100,000 people.  1 innocent person freed from death row and 1 clemency granted. Like Colorado, Idaho seems to like the death penalty better in theory than practice.
  11. Illinois:  Prior to 1972: 348 executions. After 1976: 12 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1990.  Current death row population: 15.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 20. Number of clemencies granted 172.  Note: In the late 1990s, a number of journalism students found major errors in Illinois’ death penalty including numerous cases where someone was on death row, but probably innocent.  At the time, 1 more person had been freed from death row than had been executed. Reading the articles and noting the huge error-rate, then governor Ryan (R) in 2000 imposed a moratorium on executions and, just prior to leaving office in 2003, granted clemency to all prisoners on death row. That moratorium has not been lifted. The Illinois legislature first tried to overhaul the death penalty, but this year (2011) the legislature voted to abolish the death penalty. As of my current writing, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) has not decided whether to sign or veto the bill to abolish.
  12. Indiana: Prior to 1972: 131 executions. After 1976: 20 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution since reinstatement: 1981.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 2. Clemencies granted: 3.  4.8 murders per 100,000 people.
  13. Kansas: Prior to 1972; 57 executions. After 1976: zero.  Death penalty reinstated in 1994.  Current death row population: 10. Zero people freed from death row and zero clemencies granted.  4.2 murders per population. Note: Kansas only reinstated the death penalty during the 1990s–a decade which saw the largest public support for the death penalty since World War II. It still seems to like it more in theory than in practice since there have been no executions.
  14. Kentucky:  Prior to 1972: 424 executions.  After 1976: 3 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976.  Current death row population, 35 including 1 woman.  1 innocent person freed from death row; 2 clemencies granted.  4.1 murders per 100,000 people.
  15. Louisiana:  Prior to 1972: 632 executions. After 1976:  28 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976.  Current death row population: 85 including 2 women.  First execution after reinstatement: 1983.  8 innocent persons freed from death row and 2 clemencies granted.  11.8 murders per 100,000.  Note: A study this year shows that in Louisiana, one is 97% more likely to receive death as a sentence for murder if the victim is white than if some other race.  This should be mean that LA’s death penalty violates the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment.
  16. Maryland:  Prior to 1972: 309 executions. After 1976: 5 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976.  Death row population: 5.  First execution after reinstatement: 1994.  1 innocent person freed from death row. 2 Clemencies.    7.7 murders per 100,000.  Note: The current governor of MD, Martin O’Malley (D-MD), has continued to push the MD legislature to abolish the death penalty and has imposed a moratorium on executions until the death penalty is abolished. The MD legislature has so far responded by raising the standard of evidence of guilt in capital cases and with other barriers, all of which O’Malley has signed into law, but they have not yet abolished the death penalty.  O’Malley continues to push for abolition.
  17. Missouri: Prior to 1972:  285 executions. After 1976: 67 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement: 1989.  Current population of death row: 53.  3 innocent persons freed from death row.  3 clemencies granted.  6.4 murders per 100,000 people. 
  18. Mississippi:  Prior to 1972:  351 executions.  After 1976: 13 execution.  Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement: 1983.  Current population of death row:  61 including 3 women.  3 innocent persons freed from death row. Zero clemencies granted.  6.4 persons murdered per 100,000.
  19. Montana:  Prior to 1972:  71 executions.  After 1976: 3 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement: 1995.  Zero innocent persons freed from death row and 1 clemency.  2.9 murders per 100,000 people.
  20. Nebraska:  Prior to 1972:  34.  After 1976:  3.  First execution after reinstatement:  1993.  Current population of death row: 11.  1 innocent person freed from death row and 0 clemencies.  2.2 murders per 100,000 people. In 2009, the Nebraska legislature considered abolishing the death penalty, but the bill died in committee for that session.  There has been an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty, but the state is considering its first execution since 1997.
  21. New Hampshire:  Prior to 1972: 24 executions.  After 1976:  0. Death penalty reinstated in 1991.  Zero executions since reinstatement.  Current death row population: 1.  Zero innocent persons freed from death row and zero clemencies.  0.8 persons murdered per 100,000 people.  In 2000, the NH legislature voted narrowly to abolish the death penalty, but Governor Shaheen (D) vetoed it and the legislature failed to override her veto.  In 2009, the House voted again to abolish the death penalty, but the bill died in the Senate when Governor Lynch (D) promised to veto it.  New Hampshire clearly does not like the death penalty, but reinstated it during the ’90s when the rising crime rate made it more popular than at any other time and is now finding it hard to eliminate again.
  22. Nevada:  Prior to 1972:  61.  After 1976:  12.  Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement: 1979.  Current death row population:  77.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row:  1.  Clemencies granted: 1.  5.9 murders per 100,000.
  23. North Carolina:  Prior to 1972:  782 executions. After 1976:  43.  Death penalty reinstated in 1977.  First execution after reinstatement: 1984.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 8.  Number of clemencies: 5.  Current death row population: 167, including 4 women.  6.5 murders per 100,000 people.
  24. Ohio:  Prior to 1972:  438 executions.  After 1976:  40 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976.  In 1978, the U. S. Supreme Court declared that Ohio’s new death penalty statute did not meet the constitutional requirements of  Gregg v. Georgia (1976) and threw it out.  120 death row prisoners, including 4 women had their sentences commuted to life in prison.  Ohio then drafted a death penalty statute that passed constitutional muster which went into effect in 1981.   First execution after reinstatement: 1999.  Current death row population: 168 including 2 women.  Number of innocent persons freed from persons:  5.  Number of clemencies: 12. 
  25. Oklahoma:  Prior to 1972:  132 executions.  After 1976:  96 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement:  1990.  Current death row population:  84, including 1 woman.  10 innocent persons freed from death row; 4 clemencies granted.  6.2 murders per 100,000 people.
  26. Oregon:  Prior to 1972:  122 executions.  After 1976:  2 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1978. First execution after reinstatement: 1996.  Zero innocent persons freed from death row and zero clemencies granted.  2.2 murders per 100,000.
  27. Pennsylvania:  Prior to 1972:  1040 executions.  After 1976:  3 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement: 1995.  Current death row population: 222, including 5 women.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 6. Zero clemencies granted.  5.2 murders per 100,000 people.
  28. South Carolina:  Prior to 1972: 641 executions.  After 1976:  42 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement:  1985.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 2. Clemencies granted: 0.  6.3 murders per 100,000 people.
  29. South Dakota:  Prior to 1972:  15 executions. After 1976: 1 execution.  Death penalty reinstated in 1979.  First execution since reinstatement: 2007.  South Dakota abolished the death penalty (hanging) in 1915, but reinstated it (electric chair) in 1933.   2.6 murders per 100,000 people.  In 2010, South Dakota introduced legislation to abolish the death penalty, but it did not pass.  The abolition of capital punishment is strongly supported by The Association of South Dakota Churches.  The voters of South Dakota seem to like the death penalty more in theory than practice. 
  30. Tennessee:  Prior to 1972:  335 executions.  After 1976:  6 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution since reinstatement:  2000.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row:  2. Number of clemencies granted: 2.  Current death row population: 90, including 2 women.  7.3 murders per 100,000.  In 2007, Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) imposed a three month moratorium on executions while a committee proposed new rules for fairer implementation. But nonetheless, Bredesen felt compelled to commute a sentence from death to life without parole on 11 January 2011 because the crime did not seem to meet TN’s “aggravating circumstances” criteria.
  31. Texas:  Prior to 1972:  755 executions.  After 1976: 465 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement: 1982.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 12. Number of clemencies granted: 2.  Current death row population:  337, including 10 women.  5.4 murders per 100,000 people.  Texas has executed more people since 1976 than any other state, more than twice that of the next highest execution state (Virginia), despite the fact that two states (California and Florida) have larger death row populations.  The death penalty enjoys wide popular support in Texas, despite the fact that, when polled, most Texans reply that they think the state has probably executed innocent people.  Unlike most states, Texas has been more aggressive in executing people since reinstatement than before 1972–and shows no signs of slowing down.
  32. Utah:  Prior to 1972:  43 executions.  After 1976:  7 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution since reinstatement: 1977.  Zero persons freed from death row and zero clemencies granted.  Current death row population: 10.  1.3 murders per 100,000 people.
  33. Virginia:  Prior to 1972:  1,277 executions.  After 1976:  108.  Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement:  1982.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 1. Clemencies granted: 8.  Current death row population:  15, including 2 women.  4.4 murders per 100,000. 
  34. Washington:  Prior to 1972:  105 executions. After 1976:  5 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976.  First execution after reinstatement: 1993.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 1. Clemencies granted: 0.  Current death row population: 9.  2.7 murders per 100,000.  Washington briefly abolished the death penalty in 1913, but reinstated it in 1919.  The Washington voters seem to like the death penalty more in theory than in fact.
  35. Wyoming:  Prior to 1972:  22 executions.  After 1976:  1 execution.  Death penalty reinstated in 1977.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 0. Number of clemencies granted:0.  Current death row poplation: 1.  2.4 murders per 100,000 people. 

In addition to the states, the U.S. government also imposes the death penalty for several crimes and so does the U.S. military.

U.S. Federal Death Penalty:  Prior to 1972: 340 executions. After 1976:  3 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1988.  Expanded in the Omnibus Crime Act of 1994.  First execution since reinstatement:  2001.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 0. Clemencies granted: 1. Current death row population: 59, including 2 women.  5.7 murders per 100,000 people.

U.S. Military Death Penalty:  Prior to 1972:  1,206 executions.  After 1976: 0 executions.  Death penalty reinstated in 1984.  Zero executions since reinstatement.  Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 0; Clemencies granted: 0.  Current death row population: 8.

    January 30, 2011 Posted by | blog series, capital punishment, ethics, human rights, justice, U.S. politics, violence | 1 Comment

    The Relation of Mental Illness to Political Violence and a Culture of Hatred


    • Despite national campaigns by several First Ladies of both major political parties (Betty Ford (R), Rosalynn Carter (D), Barbara Bush(R), Hillary Clinton (D) ) and at least one Second Lady (Tipper Gore (D) ), the U.S. still treats the mentally ill horribly.  Most health insurance plans do not include mental illness although more mental health is covered in the new healthcare law. 
    • Most people with mental illnesses are not violent and the fear of the mentally ill is unwarranted.
    • The mentally ill are more likely to be homeless–and if you aren’t mentally ill when you begin living on the streets, give it six months.
    • Our failure to make it difficult for the mentally ill to obtain firearms is an example of collective criminal negligence–a societal crime of the first measure.

    Now, much of the conservative punditry is taking the line that if the accused shooter in Arizona, Jared Lee Loughner, was mentally ill and had no coherent political philosophy (or is secretly liberal because he once read The Communist Manifesto or some such nonsense), then he could not have been incited to violence by the climate of hatred and the rhetoric of violence. Shorter: If he’s nuts then all the violent rhetoric of the 2010 campaign season is blameless.  But this assumes that the mentally ill are somehow unaffected by the climate around them.

    Is that the case?  I’m neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, but my understanding is that this depends on what kind of mental illness is involved.  I suffer from depression, treated with a combination of prescription meds, counseling, prayer, and periodic media breaks.  Despite my pacifist beliefs, if I am having a bad bout of depression, my temper is touchier and both personal AND political contexts affect me deeply.  I know IN MY VERY BONES why it’s a bad idea for depressed persons to have access to weapons (usually more suicidal than homicidal) and am glad I own none.  Schizophrenics are even more susceptible and those with more scientific background than me are saying that Loughner fits the classic profile of a schizophrenic.

    There is evidence to suggest that if a political culture of hatred and violent rhetoric exists, those suffering from some forms of mental illness would be the most likely to act literally on violent metaphors.  After all, they are least likely to be processing political rhetoric with calm, critical, reflective logic. 

    So the probable mental illness of Jared Lee Loughner and the (completely expected) incoherence of his political views do NOTHING to get the promoters of violent political rhetoric off the hook. They cannot escape their share of responsibility–except in the legal sense–for this crime by hiding behind whatever illness Mr. Loughner is diagnosed.  In fact, awareness that people with schizophrenia or paranoia or other mental illnesses may be watching, listening, or reading, should temper our language–if not the passion with which we express opinions. 

    This is not an attempt to curb free speech nor to throw water on passion.  The biblical prophets expressed their views with passionate, often angry, words.  So did Jesus–“brood of vipers” is not a gentle saying.  When we see injustice in society (in our limited opinions), anger is an appropriate response and sometimes things need to be denounced.  But we need to use care, too.

    We need to be able to say that our opponents’ policies are DEEPLY wrong without calling them “Hitler” or “Stalin.”  All of us.  In 2003, I was at huge rally against the invasion of Iraq when I saw some folks with signs that said “Draft the Bush Twins.” That was wrong and I asked them to put them down and use different signs.  I was invited to speak at a different rally and refused because one of the sponsoring groups was anti-Jewish. (You can’t always control who shows up, but you can control who gets invited!)  Usually, progressives and peace groups are good about policing their own rallies and weeding out violent types–but we haven’t always been. I agreed with the 2006 Congressional censure of MoveOn.org for their ad that rhymed Gen. Petraeus’ ad with “Betray Us.” It was a stupid ad and soon after that I resigned my membership in MoveOn.org because I thought they were starting to become a mirror image of those they opposed. 

    But if the left has sometimes been guilty of violent rhetoric that could affect the mentally ill, the right has done so far more often, far more deliberately and without ever taking responsibility. And the media calls them on it much less often.

    So our response has to be multi-dimensional.  We need to screen more for mental illnesses. We need better treatment and support of the mentally ill. We need far better societal understanding of such.  We need to keep weapons out the hands of the mentally ill.

    But we also need to change the culture of hatred and violent rhetoric  that can leave the mentally most vulnerable to acting violently and creating yet another cultural tragedy.

    January 12, 2011 Posted by | political violence, violence | Leave a comment

    On Being Pro-Knife

    Molly Ivins, the late political columnist and humorist from the great state of Texas, used to quip, “I’m not anti-gun; I’m pro-knife.”  Speaking as a Christian pacifist, I’m against the owning of ANY weapons.  But as a matter of public policy, I like Ivins’ perspective.  The pro-gun folk like to say, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Well, this is trite, but true.  People have been murdered long before the invention of firearms and even since then people use many other things with which to murder their fellow human beings.  But what this doesn’t say is that guns make it easier for people to kill people.  And “improvements” in firearm manufacturing mean that each generation of guns makes it even easier for one person to kill ever larger numbers of people.   The good thing about being pro-knife is that it makes would-be murderers have to work harder!

    I speak as a survivor.  In 1984, I was mugged by a man with a knife. I was brutally stabbed in the back repeatedly and nearly killed.  Now, perhaps, like Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, I could have survived even if my attacker had used a gun.  But the odds that my would-be murderer would have succeeded with a gun are MUCH higher than with a knife.  And one can run away from someone with a knife more easily than someone with a gun.  I was never a very fast runner and am now middle-aged and overweight.  But I still have a much better chance at outrunning someone with a knife than I do of outrunning a bullet. (After all, I was born in Philadelphia, not on Krypton.)

    Consider how much we could reduce violent tragedies if we replaced guns with knives:  High school shooting rampages like Columbine: Had the unhinged and alienated young men been armed with knives instead of guns, they might have succeeded in murdering one or two of their fellow students before being overpowered and disarmed–rather than dozens before killing themselves.  The accused shooter of Rep. Giffords may or may not have succeeded with a knife–but wouldn’t have killed 6 people and injured 10 others.  How much easier would it be to protect politicians from people with knives than from people with guns? We could reduce the size of the Secret Service and the Capitol Police and save money–while granting greater access to our elected officials as the Constitution’s Framers intended.  Remember a few years ago when an Amish school was massacred by a madman with a gun? The rampage would have been far less deadly if the man had only had a large Bowie knife.  Same with the Virginia Tech shooting.

    The answer to every gun tragedy in this nation seems to be “more guns.”  More people in this country now own guns than at any time in our history.  3 out of 4 households have a firearm–a greater percentage than any other country (the nearest is Yemen).  But we aren’t safer. We are less safe. FBI statistics show that burglars shoot people with their own guns far more often than gunowners successfully repel armed burglaries.  Suicides and accidental shootings are incredibly high, too. 

    So, let’s be pro-knife.  Let’s restrict handguns and automatic firearms  to the military (and cut the military, too, but that’s a different discussion). Hunters can own rifles, but let’s register them all and make mandatory safety classes and trigger locks.  Let’s make murderers work harder to commit their sins against the rest of us.

    January 11, 2011 Posted by | nonviolence, violence | 2 Comments

    Reflections on American Political Violence

    I don’t know how coherent this blog post will be.  The events are too close.  But writing is therapeutic for me.

    As I write this, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) fights for her life after surgery.  She was shot in the head earlier today by an assassin who used automatic weapons. 19 people were hit with gunfire and 6 have died (as I write) from this event, including a 9 year old girl and a federal judge (previously threatened) who had ruled against the horrible “Show us your papers” anti-immigrant law passed in AZ last year which allows police to arrest anyone for “looking like an illegal immigrant” (i.e., giving open season on brown people who may be of Mexican heritage).  Last year, Rep. Giffords’ Tea Party-backed opponent hosted an event that invited people to shoot targets with Giffords face attached.  Former half-term AK Gov. Sarah Palin(R-AK) had put gunsite crosshairs over Gifford’s face along with other Democrats her Political Action Committee was “targeting.”  Hiding behind the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, the irresponsible “Mama Grizzly” claims it was a metaphor and that she had no intention of creating an atmosphere of violence and fear in which nutcase followers could “exercise 2nd Amendment solutions” (i.e., kill people) when not achieving the desired results at the ballot box.  Political violence in the form of rightwing domestic terrorism has returned to the United States.

    It has a long history–no doubt one of the legacies of a nation birthed by violent revolution. Yet many other countries had violent origins without having the long legacy of assassination, attempted assassination, and related political violence that has dogged the history of these United States.  Four (4) U.S. Presidents have been assassinated (Abraham Lincoln; James Garfield; William McKinley; John F. Kennedy).  Six other presidents survived assassination attempts (Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelet, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford (twice), and Ronald Reagan), not including the attempts foiled prior to any gunshots, including two so far on President Obama.  Presidential candidates like Senator Robert F. Kennedy (who almost certainly would have beaten Richard Nixon for the White House in ’68 had he lived) have also been assassinated, as have numerous other elected officials throughout our history.  On 22 May 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks (D-SC) used a cane to beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachussetts into unconsciousness on the Senate floor for giving an anti-slavery speech. Sumner was so injured, he was unable to resume his duties as senator for 3 years. Meanwhile, because Brooks broke his cane in the assault and battery, South Carolinians sent him dozens of new canes engraved with the words “good job.”  Political activists such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Harvey Milk have also been assassinated in this country. 

    Sometimes in our history most of the political violence has been from leftwing groups such as the Weather Underground of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  But in recent history, the threats and violence has been from the Right, as documented here.

    In fact, during my childhood in the U.S. South (during the struggle against segregation) the numbers of Civil Rights activists who were killed ran into the hundreds and those injured by mob violence or police violence were too numerous to count.  Many of the perpetrators have never answered for their crimes.  Many were repeatedly freed by juries even after openly bragging of their crimes. 

    I’m not going to argue that such violence is wrong.  That’s too easy.  Not only my own pacifist Christian faith, but almost every moral and religious system in the world condemns such acts–though many of those who claim to follow such systems violate them and commit these atrocities anyway.

    I want to say only a few things:  1) The violence fits the true definition of “terrorism.”  The intent is to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion of others.  The intent is to intimidate.  This is true no matter who uses these tactics:  Preston Brooks was trying to make abolitionists, especially abolitionists elected to Congress, afraid of speaking out against slavery.  Lynchings were “to keep N@##ers in their place.”  Violence against Civil Rights activists was for the purpose of making them too afraid to keep taking on segregation.  During the feminist movement in the 197os, signs held that said things like “All You Gals Need is a Little Rape!” were meant to silence women pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment.  When abortion clinics are bombed, the intent is to frighten women who might seek abortions and to frighten doctors who might perform them.  When politicians are burned in effigy or treasured symbols are burned or harmed, the intent is to intimidate and inflame passions.  The same is true when hate speech is used that includes violent metaphors–even if some like Sarah Palin are too stupid to know what their followers might do with their words.

    2) The intimidation often works. Although abortion is still legal in this nation (and that legality has been supported by a majority in every poll but one since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973), clinics where abortions are performed are much rarer.  Many medical schools are afraid even to teach what would be necessary to perform a safe and legal abortion. (This does not say anything about the moral merits of legal abortion. I’m simply talking about the violent tactic used to get results one cannot achieve by democratic means.) Since AZ’s passage of its demonic “walking while brown” anti-immigrant law (and 14 other state legislatures are looking to copy this law unless the courts intervene), many LEGAL immigrants and even citizens of Hispanic heritage are afraid to even go to the police when threatened because they may be “thought to be an illegal immigrant.”  They certainly are less likely to be organizing politically when afraid to even leave the house.  Whether Rep. Giffords lives or dies, fewer progressive  candidates will stand for office out of fear for themselves, their families, or for innocent 9 year old bystanders. (New Speaker Boehner (R-OH)’s attempt to say that an attack on anyone in Congress is an attack on all of them is wrong.  This attack strengthens his hand and his party by depriving Democrats, especially progressive Democrats, of one more vote and one more articulate voice for our concerns. That deprivation was the point of the attack.)

    3) Because of 1 & 2, such political violence is the enemy of representative democracy and the rule of law.  In place of law, we put vigilantes with guns. In place of abiding by election results; in place of public debate and discussion, we put assassination attempts, bombings, threats, implied threats and an atmosphere of fear. 

    Don’t let the fear and hatemongers win.  Stand up and be counted as Gabrielle Giffords has done.  Stand with her–whether you are a Democrat or Republican (or Libertarian or Green or Socialist or Natural Law Partymember, etc.).  Political and social conflict can be a good thing. I do not fear debate. I think we are better off for healthy debate.  But threats and lies and innuendos and propaganda are NOT the same thing.  That way leads to the spiral of political violence that can doom this country.  Stand up, speak up and walk together,  children. Refuse the madness of the way of the gun and the way of hate speech and the way of violence.  Link arms and march together.  Tell the hatemongers of whatever political stripe  that WE WILL NOT BE MOVED!

    January 8, 2011 Posted by | political violence, violence | 2 Comments