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Governor Niki Haley, of South Carolina has called for Dylann
Storm Roof, the 21 year old who shot and killed nine people in the AME church
in Charleston, SC to face the death penalty. Whether he is tried under South
Carolina law or under Federal law the death penalty is a possibility.
This tragic situation presents us with an opportunity to
consider two questions: 1) what is the source of this “evil” that causes a man
to kill in cold blood and 2) what is accomplished by formally executing the
perpetrator of such a crime?
Several of those who have commented on this and other recent
incidents of similar character have identified at least the actions taken by the
killers, if not the killers themselves, as “evil.”
Evil is defined rather blandly in the dictionary as “morally
objectionable behavior.” Most of us feel it more viscerally than that, as
something dark, sinister, threatening and unsettling; something that must be
stamped out even at risk of our own well being, like a venomous snake.
Shakespeare’s words – put in the mouth of Anthony as he eulogized Caesar, the dead
emperor – “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with
their bones,” comes close to expressing both our fear of evil’s lasting power,
and our helplessness in the face of it.
But the question we wrestle with is whether men are evil or
if they merely become – through mental illness, environmental influences, or
demon possession – capable of committing deeds we call evil. Or does Evil exist
as a living entity, independent of, but capable of influencing sentient
creatures like ourselves? Is it a Devil in our midst or is it merely a
description of behavior that goes beyond the pale of human acceptance? Can
human beings become “evil” any more than a volcano or a hurricane can become
Regardless of where we come down on the issues discussed
above there is still the question of what to do about evil – or Evil, if you
please. Insisting on the death penalty for those who commit our idea of the
most heinous varieties of evil – murder being the most prevalent example –
seems to say “the evil that men do” can indeed be “interred with their bones.” Something
in us knows, though, that such is not the case. Executing a twenty-one year-old
mass killer neither, erases the pain inflicted by his deeds, ends mass
killings, brings back to life those he slaughtered, nor repays him “eye for eye
and tooth for tooth” – he does not have enough eyes and teeth. All it seems to
do is to wreak some degree of vengeance on the “evil person.” It has not proven
to be a deterrent to future evil deeds by other “evil” persons.
I suppose, since I have started this conversation, it is
incumbent upon me to take a position. So I will attempt to do that as
succinctly as I can. To begin, I do believe in Evil, and not just because it is
a “tenant” of my Christian faith – although it is notably not explicit in the
Apostle’s Creed. I believe in evil because I see it at work in all living
things around me; anomalies exist that are inimical to life itself, and I must
conclude that just as there must be an Author of Life and Goodness, so there
must be an author of Evil – of death itself. Further, I conclude that, just as
humans have no innate goodness in themselves but rather are made right-eous
(good) by the inspiration (inbreathing) of God their creator, so the evil that
possesses all of us to some degree – some tragically to a degree that drives
them beyond the pale of human acceptance – is the result of inspiration
(inbreathing) of the Evil One. It is these twin beliefs – that humans can be
inspired (breathed into) by both God and Satan – that makes me hesitant to call
any man (or creature) evil. If a criminal, hanging on a cross next to our dying
Savior could, in an instant, receive forgiveness from Jesus Christ, and the
promise of everlasting life, who am I to conclude that any modern murderer
might not also be that close to the kingdom of God? And who am I to demand that
his life be snuffed out?
So, is the death penalty demanded in cases like the one we
are considering here? I believe not. Can the Evil that caused this tragedy be
snuffed out by killing the killer? Never. That is beyond human power to
accomplish. Are there things we can do to rescue humans from the cycles of
poverty, deprivation, ignorance, hatred, violence, etc., that cause them to
become tools of Satan? Certainly. We can help to alleviate the social
conditions that breed evil AND we can promote the Gospel of Christ which brings
men and women into a relationship with God that, rightly understood, forbids
such inhumanity of man to man.
There are several reasons I oppose the death penalty: 1) it
does not seem to deter evil deeds, 2) it makes killers of us all even as we
profess to abhor killing, 3) it assumes in most cases more knowledge of guilt
than can ever be proven, 4) it impacts the poor far more negatively than the
affluent who can afford the legal assistance that the poor cannot, 5) our legal
system is not devised to administer “justice” but rather to award “convictions”
and “acquittals” to those who can make the cleverest arguments, 6) it satisfies
a base (evil) desire in the human heart for revenge, 7) it takes the one who is
executed beyond the hearing of the saving grace of God.
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy has pointed out
recently, we have not yet devised an acceptable human system of incarceration
for those whose crimes require long-term sentences. We need to address that
problem so that those who must serve indefinite – or life-time – sentences are
neither provided with posh conditions nor deprived of their humanity. It seems
too often we make prison life a living death. Many inmates, under those
conditions become their own executioners, taking their own lives.
We need to abolish the death penalty. We need to reform our
prison systems. We need to convert our penal system into a correctional system.
The first is easy, requiring only a change in our laws. The rest requires all
the ingenuity available to us. Meanwhile we need to do everything in our power
to deprive evil of a place to put down its roots.
Well, the news is out and it is official now: Wisconsin
ranks 35th among the 50 states in the U.S. in job growth for the
four years 2011 – 2014 and “dead last,” as some like to say, among its
neighboring states of Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. While the nation
as a whole added jobs over that four-year period at a rate greater than 9%
Wisconsin could not muster even 6%.
What does this tell us? One thing it does not tell us is the
whole story. In critiquing the performance of the economy one must be careful
not to demand more than a particular region can be expected to deliver. Many
factors play into the dynamics of job creation that are beyond the short term
power of a government to control or change.
But we were very specifically promised that policies put
into effect beginning in 2011 would create the number of jobs, 250,000 to be
specific, that would have put Wisconsin at the top of the charts by this time.
In reality only a little over half that number have materialized. And while the
nation had rebounded above the number employed before the dramatic economic crash
of 2007-08, Wisconsin was still struggling at the end of 2014 to get back to
the pre-recession level.
Perhaps it is time to reconsider the policies enacted in the
last four years. As our legislators struggle to devise a balanced budget, they
face a 2 to 3.5 million dollar deficit. Obviously lowering taxes on the wealthy
and cutting benefits for the poor have not paved the way to a balanced budget.
Still our legislators – at least the majority of them – seem convinced that
banging our heads against the wall will eventually achieve the kind of economic
breakthrough they have been hoping for.
Sadly, it isn’t the heads of our legislators, our governor,
nor the heads of their wealthy political benefactors, that is being used to
smash the way to success. It is the heads of state employees whose wages, benefits,
and bargaining rights have been stripped from them. It is the heads of welfare
recipients whose benefits have been cut back and who, in the next years, will
be harassed by the requirement to take a drug test in order to receive those
benefits. It is heads of poor Wisconsin residents who are denied Medicaid
benefits because of our government’s refusal to participate in “Obamacare.” It
is the heads of our low-wage service sector workers who are working at below-poverty-level
wages with short hours and no benefits.
There is a simple solution to our budgetary problems in
Wisconsin. We need to tax ourselves at whatever level is required to provide
the services we want our state to provide. That includes well built and well maintained
roads, bridges, ports, etc. It includes a K-12 through college system of
education that is fully funded and staffed with qualified, well compensated, college-prepared
teachers and professors. It includes affordable healthcare for all our
citizens. It includes welfare benefits for those who are unable to earn a
living. It includes the establishment of a living wage for all workers,
part-time as well as full-time.
Wisconsin is not broke, as we were told when we began this
race to the bottom. Much of our choice, scenic land is being gobbled up for use
as recreational playgrounds for the wealthy or development of premier
residential districts. Our lakes are filled with boats and other recreational
apparatuses costing $20,000 up to $100,000 and more. Our highways teem with new
vehicles many costing more than a three bedroom home – some of them are
three bedroom homes on wheels. Our sports venues are full every time they are
open with fans spending hundreds of dollars per visit for admission and food.
Our bars and restaurants are crowded from early morning until late at night
with young and old enjoying food and drink that they could have for half the
price by eating at home.
No, we are not broke. Even the poorest among us are not
broke. We can afford the small increase in taxes – it should be proportional to
income or wealth – that it would take to put the state on a sound footing. And
as those taxes go to work they will generate the kind of growth our leaders
have been promising; jobs in numbers that could exceed the national average.
For those of us
who grew up poor in the 1940s and 1950s the route to some sort of prosperity
and success lay in small brick structures scattered around our communities and
in larger complexes of brick structures in a few communities around our state.
Of course I’m speaking of our public schools; K-12 schools housed in publicly
financed buildings, taught by publicly paid teachers, and larger – and ever-growing
– Teacher’s Colleges and Universities supported by a combination of tuition and
The movement toward public education began almost as soon as our
forefathers completed construction of their first homes in the colonies that
spread up and down the east coast of what is now the United States of America.
In community after community, especially in the more populous northeast,
schools were established for a variety of different reasons, some religious,
As the young nation shook off its colonial status and established itself
under the Articles of Confederation it took possession of the Northwest Territory.
Two important steps were taken immediately to assure an educated population. As
surveyors plotted the land into six-mile-square townships they also subdivided
it into mile-wide “squares”. The sixteenth “square”, roughly in the middle of
each township was designated as property on which a public school would be built. Provision and encouragement for the
establishment of a public university in each territory (soon to be a state) was
also a part of the vision of our founders. Embedded in the Northwest Ordinance
were the words, "Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good
government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education
shall forever be encouraged."
Schools and the means of education
shall forever be encouraged. And it was at a school, not a lot different
than those constructed on the sixteenth square of most townships throughout the
budding Northwest Territory, that my sister, my brothers, my neighbors and I
got our start toward a better life than that of our parents and grandparents.
Further, it was with great pride that we watched the oldest son go off to a
publicly financed university where he would be the first of our family to
receive a college diploma from the
University of Illinois no less.
But the story of our family is not unique. In the years from the end of
World War II until today the vast majority of Americans have received their
education in publicly financed institutions. In those schools the nation has
brought together the varied ethnicities, economic classes, and culturally
diverse populations that make us the rich nation that we are. Without that
intermingling – imperfect to say the least, and not without serious problems –
it is sobering, even frightening, to imagine the kind of society we might be.
One needs only look at other areas of the world where a similar variety of
ethnic, religious, regional, racial, and cultural diversity exists in volatile
and deadly combination to understand what we could have become; what we yet
could become if we allow our varied elements to drift apart into warring camps
each raising its flag of religious, racial, ethnic or cultural privilege.
But there is a movement afoot to dismantle our system of public schools.
Not just our K-12 public schools but our university system as well. The attack
on public education comes in the form of weakening the structures that have
built it into the educational model that much of the world turns to for
At the K-12 level the primary focus is privatization accomplished through
the establishment of for-profit charter schools and publicly funded private,
often parochial, schools. If such schools were funded in addition to the adequate funding of fully public schools there
might be some basis for justifying the expenditure of public money to “provide
competition” for the public schools. But the opposite is happening; every
dollar spent to support a private school diminishes the support for public
education by the same amount. And instead of providing “academic competition”
for public schools these publicly supported private schools are not held to the
same standards as public schools; they are not made to “compete” but allowed,
in many cases, to operate largely with no accountability for the funds invested
And now, in the current budget being discussed in Madison, the University
System is being asked to operate with 250 million fewer dollars than in the
previous budget even though the previous budget also had significant reductions
in funding. Additionally the Governor and the Legislature has, over the last
several years, frozen tuition at state universities, forced university faculty to
take unpaid days off, frozen their pay rates and forced then to pay more for
their health insurance. And in the latest proposed injury to the system, tenure
for university faculty is being eliminated from state law. (For the time being
it is still retained by the University Board of Regents but it may only be a
matter of time before that is wiped out too. Sixteen of the eighteen-member Board of Regents are appointed by the
All of this is in addition to the outrage committed against all state
worker’s unions (State Patrol and firemen’s unions excepted) by Act 10 which
essentially stripped them of any meaningful bargaining rights. With the public
employees unions eviscerated there was no significant force left to oppose the
attack on public education outlined above. By gerrymandering legislative
districts the Governor’s party has assured itself the dominance needed in the
legislature to act with impunity as it dismantles a century of progress in
"Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good
government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education
shall forever be encouraged."
Could our Governor whose budget
writing committee submitted, according to the Washington Post, “a budget
proposal that included language that would have changed the century-old mission
of the University of Wisconsin system . . . by removing words that commanded
the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and
replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs,” agree with the founders
idea of the importance of our publicly supported educational system? He and his
legislative comrades would choke on our founding fathers’ words. The governor
and his legislative partners are determined to limit, not encourage, the kind
of education our founders envisioned; an education that supports the essentials
of “religion, morality, and knowledge” and replace it with welding classes to
“meet the state’s workforce needs.” How sterile. How shortsighted. How
Welding classes we will always have with us but religion and morality
must be cultivated or they will die out or morph into the deadly forces we see
operating today in so many parts of the world. Welding classes will be demanded
by our economy but universities exploring knowledge of our world can only
survive if we value them enough to invest in them without knowing the economic
benefits that will flow from them
We can only hope that future
elections will bring to office men and women with clearer vision who understand
that our publicly supported schools and universities form the basis of our
democratic society. We can only hope that, here in Wisconsin, and around our
nation, the people whose children are at risk of losing the right of a good
education in a well-funded – publicly funded – school or university will wake
up and vote out those who are attacking the very institutions that provide the
hope of a better life for the poor and middle class youth of our day. It is
such schools that help to assure that we will remain “One nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice (opportunity) for all.”