The Lethal Injection College Fund
Here's one billion dollars. Kill a few people, or help thousands?
Here's a modestly clever idea that will never come to pass in a thousand years because it's absolutely not the way modern life or America work right now, but it's nevertheless all sorts of delightfully ironic fun to ponder anyway.
I'm reading a bit about how our fine, God-loving nation just executed John Allen Muhammad, aka the Washington D.C. sniper, injected his remorseless flesh with a megadose of sodium pentothal as dozens of people actually chose to sit behind a glass wall and watch him writhe and twitch and die sans any final statement or single sign of penitence or satisfying explanation as to his murderous actions.
If you like, you can read the story right now on this fair site, and then jump to the bottom where you will certainly find a reeking cesspool of some of the most nasty, disturbing anonymous comments from fine, God-fearing Americans, and then proceed calmly to feeling utterly soiled, disgusted and sad about the human race as a whole.
Here's a better idea: Skip that, and instead check out the recent study from the Death Penalty Information Center, which states that after all court costs, fees and various social machinations are factored in, the average death sentence costs each state that supports it about $30 million per inmate, running well into hundreds of millions in wasted taxpayer dollars every year.
I say "wasted" because the study proves that, even from a simple economic perspective, the death penalty is ridiculous and culturally debilitating, and the various states in question could save hundreds of millions a year simply by locking the prisoner up for life.
To be honest, the first idea to occur to me wasn't even all that clever. I initially wondered what would happen if you took, say, 30 of the nastiest, most hateful, eye-for-an-eye death penalty supporters and anonymous commenters in America today, and made them the following offer:
I will hereby give each of you $1 million if you agree that we will not kill this insane, murderous criminal, and instead just let him rot in prison for the rest of his life without a chance of parole. A million bucks, all for you. Or, we kill him, waste the $30 million and you get nothing.
Do you know how many would accept? Of course you do. All of them. Which means, for most, support of the death penalty is no serious moral conviction at all; it's merely an ugly, black hunk of reactionary spittle, the bleak human vengeance synapse writ large, something reptilian and small and just about as far from our often hypocritical concepts of God and forgiveness, compassion and understanding, as you can possibly get.
Thankfully, this admittedly spiteful thought soon passed and quickly led to the wider idea I mentioned at the top of this column. Do you know what $30 million can buy these days? What your average cash-strapped urban playground could do with that kind of money, particularly during a recession?
Here's my simple and semi-obvious idea: what if Washington D.C. had taken the same $30 million, and instead of killing a single remorseless criminal, created upwards of 600 full-ride college scholarships for lower-income or minority students, at 50 grand each.
In other words, for every criminal a given state is seeking to execute -- like, for example, the Fort Hood killer, who they say might well be eligible for the death penalty -- we take the same tens of millions in taxpayer dollars and send hundreds of kids through college instead, kids who otherwise would never have been able to afford it and in fact might've ended up on the streets or in prison.
We'll call it the Lethal Injection College Fund. It shall, by its very existence, do nothing less than completely transform the ugly American revenge impulse into something celebratory and optimistic. We shall transmute a brutal crime into a glimmer of hope and possibility. From dark to light. From excrement, flowers. From our most violent nightmares, a hint of grace. What a thing.
In 2008, the United States executed about 30 males, all by lethal injection, unless they lived in South Carolina, in which case it was electrocution preceded by being forced to stare for two full weeks at a poster of Lindsay Graham. Horrible.
That's nearly $1 billion in taxpayer money wasted last year alone across the U.S. -- mostly in the South -- just to kill a few criminals, just to keep alive a vile and primitive idea that's proven to be not the slightest deterrent to violent crime, and only puts us on par with some of the world's most cruel and sadistic third-world nations. Theoretically, that's 18,000 kids we could've put through college. One dead criminal, or 18,000 educated kids. What a choice.
Did you note the fascinating kicker regarding the Lethal Injection College Fund? The amazing twist? Among those theoretical 18,000, it's a safe bet that, had it not been for the LICF, many would've eventually wound up in prison themselves, a few probably on death row. Translation: One violent criminal saves countless potential future criminals from the same fate. There's a karmic lesson in there somewhere.
Do not misunderstand. I am well aware of the utter absurdity of this idea, not to mention that you could take the same simplistic formula and apply it just about anywhere -- for example, say, flipping the insane cost of a single U.S. military fighter jet (also about $30 million, ironically) into how many homeless puppies could be saved if we used that money for shelters. I realize that the economy simply does not work this way.
Unless it does. Because of course, the death penalty has a special, particularly nasty tang. It is no weapon for peace. It is no advancement of the human experiment. It only serves to devolve, regress, keep us low and brutal and mean.
I would like to report that we are nearing the end of the reactionary bloodlust phase of the American experiment, that, with the Obama-inspired resurgence of positivism and the concomitant lessening of the bogus, pseudo-cowboy American fantasy, the dark energy that seems to welcome the death penalty is lessening, and it feels as if we are about to join the rest of the civilized world in rejecting this inhumane, animalistic practice.
But of course, I can't possibly say such a thing. We are nowhere near that point. Not when 65 percent of Americans still support the death penalty, bullets are sold out across the land, and millions absolutely refuse to evolve past paranoia and fear and vengeance, the ugliest of American cornerstones and the most clenched, spiritually bereft aspects of our national identity.
And now, John Allen Muhammad is dead, and no one anywhere feels the slightest bit better, not really, not if they're honest, not if they truly look their god in the eye and try to justify this dark, spirtually bereft human impulse. And, oh yes, 600 hypothetical kids will now never go to college.
Oh well. It was all just a silly fantasy anyway.
© 2009 The San Francisco Chronicle