So James Holmes was not sentenced to death because of one juror holdout and people are up in arms about this “abortion of justice.” I won’t bother with all the caveats and excuses about not being an expert on any of this (expert worship in this culture is about as high as our thirst for blood, it would seem) and just offer some thoughts.
1) Obviously, any solutions you suggest or espouse will depend on what you think the problem is. If you think the problem is the death penalty, you will lean toward suggestions that include its abolition and probably reforming prisons to incorporate more restorative, rather than retaliatory, measures. If you think the problem is crime, lack of public safety and that some people are just always going to be dangerous, you may or may not wish to see the death of the death penalty. I don’t see my job as being to get us all to agree, even in situations where I believe that might be possible. This, the issue of the death penalty, is actually one of those situations but it’s only because of what I believe the actual problem is. So, step one: clearly identify the problem you’re suggesting a solution for.
2) Late writer David Foster Wallace said that writing – fiction in particular – was about “what it means to be a fucking human being.” It’s not a coincidence, then, that he saw fiction as the soul’s way out of loneliness. Stay with me, here. DFW was born in 1962 and was, by his and most other accounts, in the first generation that spent the majority of their lives being marketed to (he noted this because it’s really hard to write about commercialization and the effects of advertising without sound hokey). This would mean, then, that most in my generation have not only been raised under the tyranny of marketing but were raised by people who themselves have little to no memory of a world before constant advertising (so, sorry Dave, but you ain’t got nothing on us Millennials in that department!). The entire goal of the marketing industry is to create needs where there were none for products that may or may not do what they’re advertised to do, that is, to “create an anxiety relievable by purchase,” as DFW writes in his sprawling, strobe-light work of tortured genius Infinite Jest.
Oddly, being saturated in this type of angst-fueled culture has a weird sort of anesthetizing effect. Sure, we are made to consistency feel inadequate – my ass is too big, my hair is too gray, my toenails are too yellowed, my kids are too average, my career is too dull and lackluster. But all of these anxieties that may or may not have existed in a society void of 24-hour marketing piped through every screen to every orifice of every brain and vein hooked up to the shimmery splendor of modern technological conquest are, as the smart ad gurus will be happy to tell you, easily and almost instantly relievable at a commercial nucleus near you. What this has created, it seems to me, is a sturdy expectation that whatever angst you feel – anything from the fashionable to the ontological/epistemological/spiritual – can be nearly totally and instantaneously removed. You just have to find the right product – which may even by a book by a really smart author (perhaps part of the reason why writing about this problem is so damn hard?). Still with me? The end result of all of this is a culture where the biggest problem people encounter every day is traffic – of which they themselves are a part – on the way to obtaining that thing that will solve their latest problem. So if DFW’s conception of his work was about what it means to be human, my work might be about getting people to care about being human again. In other words, that’s my definition of the problem. This is not about the death penalty, per se, but about our – I mean this literally; there are always individual exceptions – lack of care about what it means to be a human being.
3) A cursory scroll down Facebook’s newsfeed confirms this for me. I see 40-second clips of elephants playing with string followed by graphic pictures of Palestinian kids dead from stuff our tax dollars are no doubt funded followed immediately by a gorgeous woman urging other women to know their own beauty from the inside out followed by four friends’ ultrasound pictures right in a row followed by the urgent pleas of an animal rescue center somewhere on the other side of the world for donations to help Max, a currently unrecognizable breed of dog who may die of wounds he received during a depraved-heart beating by his former owner. This, for DFW, might have been evidence of a deeply fragmented reality. I actually see a terrifying – though absolutely not surprising – grand cohesion underneath the babies (growing and dead), bits of string and self-esteem support. The general picture, with, as always, many and varied exceptions, is that we care about what it means to be this human being; every single post, even the ones about injustice in the Middle East or gun control in Virginia, is centered on the person posting it, how that person feels about it, and what they think you should do about it. Even some of the stories themselves are reported with one of the author’s eyes ever on him or herself – and not in a self-conscious way that might belie some humility, either.
“But, uh, you were going to talk about the death penalty,” you’re probably saying. My point is not that it’s selfish to support the death penalty or to shame all the selfie takers or even the political and cultural commentators, of which I am one. My point is that we’re going to get nowhere on the issue of the death penalty – whether abolishing it or making it “more humane” – or any other major human/civil rights issue (you know where I stand: violation) until we start to care, collectively, about what it means to be a fucking human being, which is far scarier and more difficult than caring about just the singular one we each ourselves are.