Gov. Kitzhaber’s move is believed to be the first step toward the abolition of the death penalty.
In Homer’s “The Iliad,” Achilles took vengeance upon Hector and the Trojans, laying waste to everyone in his path, for his dear lover and friend Patroclus’ death. The bloodthirsty display is commonly known as “The Wrath of Achilles.”
While Achilles is myth and “The Iliad” a work of fiction, the death penalty is very real, and there is something to be learned from Homer’s great work.
Achilles’ wrath does nothing for the glory of Greece, destroys a civilization in the form of Troy, stains Patroclus’ memory and makes of Achilles a beast. The great warrior becomes an automaton to his bloodlust. And, yet, there is something moving in that wrath of Achilles—something all too human. A deep sense of melancholy. The power of love so total that it drives Achilles toward total destruction. He becomes a machine of mass destruction. A wrecker of civilization.
We weep for Achilles’s sorrow. We weep for the dead Patroclus and the scores of dead Greeks and Trojans, whose blood feeds the Earth. We weep for the doomed Troy. We weep for Hector who will fight heroically but with not enough skill to overcome Achilles, that unstoppable anthropomorphism of godly wrath. We don’t celebrate Achilles’ fall, but weep for the fact that he could have been so much better.
We weep because everything about “The Iliad” is sad—that it took a silly war for these men to demonstrate their greatness.
Unlike “The Iliad,” however, there is no human greatness in the death penalty. Nay, it is far better to be like King Priam: to look in the eyes of his son’s killer and see that pain, the sorrow, and to not answer wrath with wrath. To know that Achilles has already lost and to pity his rage.
Yesterday, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber put a moratorium on his state’s death penalty, stating there would be no more executions for the rest of his term. A step that many believe will lead to abolition.
As the ACLU writes, ”Yesterday’s courageous decision by Gov. Kitzhaber in Oregon adds to the growing and irreversible momentum toward the complete abolition of the death penalty in this country… The governor was correct to recognize that the death penalty system in his state and across the nation is plagued by systemic injustices and is broken beyond repair. It is arbitrary, discriminatory and costs taxpayers enormous amounts of money. Today we celebrate moratorium in Oregon, recognizing that capital punishment always violates human rights. This is a wonderful step toward the end of the death penalty in our country.”
Kitzhaber called the death penalty ”compromised and inequitable,” and noted that it is less costly, less a burden on the state budget, to imprison for life without parole than sentence people to death.
The governor would have been wise to proclaim the existential and moral burden that strains the human heart every time a death penalty is carried out. But, this is the world we live in: People care more about the health of the state purse than the human heart. People want their damned businesslike, pragmatic approach to every last issue.
Me? I try to be like Priam.