Below are remarks that DPAA Advisory Board member Dennis Seavers made upon receiving the 2012 Abolitionist of the Year Award at DPAA’s March 2, 2013 Annual Meeting.
Although all of us here are opposed to the death penalty, each of us has arrived at that view in different ways, perhaps pulled more by the weight of this argument than that one. For some, the racist application of the death penalty may figure prominently; for others, the cost of capital punishment is an overarching concern. Even if you have several reasons that you’re opposed, you may, if you’re like me, have a particular reason that’s closest to your heart, that reflects your outlook on the world. Each of us has a story to tell, and I thought on this occasion that I’d briefly share mine.
One of my favorite contemporary writers is the novelist, short-story writer, and essayist Joyce Carol Oates. Oates writes about what she has called “the human soul caught in the stampede of time.” Oates’s fiction often contains episodes of violence or trauma that affect the characters in ways that significantly shape their lives, sometimes later in life as an echo of that original trauma. As the critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have written, “The violence associated with some of [Oates’s] fiction is a result of her sense that ordinary people cannot always articulate or even understand the ways in which they are trapped in the convulsions of history.”
Our actions are often motivated by forces that are not always visible to us, or are not of our choosing, or, if chosen, have consequences that are exceedingly difficult to escape — forces such as genetics or substance abuse or whether we were subjected to violence in childhood. People have a tendency to unwittingly cast about for a larger, public stage on which to project their own psychodramas.
What I’ve seen in my professional and personal experience says that the difference between the lives of most people and those who succumb to violence and crime often stems from factors that are largely, though not completely, beyond our control. If we were to have lived their lives, can we truly say that we would have avoided their mistakes? I believe that we simply don’t forge our own paths in life; outlines of the paths we choose have been shaped and placed there by society, history, family, and the vicissitudes of life.
Some might see this a pessimistic view of human nature that leaves little room for personal responsibility, but I think it’s a realistic view, not the sanguine view of unfettered personal responsibility, or the myth of our lives being entirely forged by our own actions. Responsibility has a social dimension, and we as a society shirk our responsibility by deifying the personal dimension. And, at any rate, holding people responsible for their crimes has never been a shortcoming in our society.
The way people can escape the “convulsions of history” is to understand their own lives, their own stories, as best they can. Their stories have to be told. One of the tragedies of the death penalty is that it silences those stories. And those who justify capital punishment also silence the stories by presenting a distorted view of the perpetrators of crime, as if the entirety of a person’s life could be reduced to the crimes committed. It’s true that the victims’ stories have also been silenced. But rather than restoring the victims’ voices, the death penalty only amplifies the tragedy. The violence of each death — victim and perpetrator — ripples outward, sometimes through generations. The death penalty relies on silence and secrecy, which corrupts, as we saw when our state recently subverted the law to acquire an execution drug.
But the death penalty does not have the last word. It’s into this silence that we insert our own voices of resistance, and our advocacy for life, by working to abolish capital punishment.