CRUEL HOAX OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, REVIEW OF ANTOINETTE BOSCO, CHOOSING MERCY (ORBIS, 2001)
Catholic New Times, 3 June 2001; on the web by permission, September 2002
One could argue that this American book should not be reviewed in Canada. Capital punishment has been outlawed here since 1967. No executions have taken place since 1962. This is one barbarity that Canada, like most European countries, has learned to do without.
The United States, by contrast, lifted a decade-long moratorium on the death penalty in 1976. Since then, thirty of the fifty states have put criminals to death. About 750 executions have been carried out, three quarters of them by lethal injection, the rest by electrocution, poison gas, hanging, or firing squad.
Since state-sanctioned murder is currently practiced in the United States but not here, the main practical effect of publicizing Bosco's book on this side of the border may be to reinforce our delicious feeling of moral superiority over Americans. I doubt that a single reader of CNT wants the death penalty reintroduced in this country. Could not this space be more responsibly filled with discussion of a book about some barbarity entrenched in our own way of life?
Not really. The debate over the death penalty will likely resurface in Parliament after the next election. When that happens, Bosco's book will be a good one to thrust under the nose of any politician inclined to bring the hangman back. In the meanwhile, here is a reasoned, passionate reminder that the needlessness of capital punishment is just as apparent to millions of Americans as it is to the readers of CNT.
Bosco is a 73-year-old Connecticut journalist and social activist. Her book is not just meditation on tragedy and confession of faith but also hard-nosed reporting on the author's involvements with U.S. organizations devoted to abolishing the death penalty in American law. Names and addresses of a dozen such groups are provided in an appendix.
Arguments about public policy must address the common ground that transcends individual experience. Choosing Mercy does that. Bosco appeals to papal authority, Catholic teaching, Christian faith, social theory, criminological research, data on wrongful convictions, and at bottom, the ethic of human solidarity, to make her case against putting any criminals to death.
Still, it is the author's individual experience that gives this book its power. Late on a summer's night in 1993, a solitary stranger broke into the home of Bosco's son and daughter-in- law in Montana, and murdered them as they slept. The first third of this book is a chronicle of how a grieving mother found peace through forgiveness, to the point of appealing to the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty for her son's murderer.
Bosco quotes Rabbi Alan Lew's characterization of capital punishment as a "cruel hoax that is sold to the families of victims. They are so vulnerable, the easiest thing to sell them is anger. It's the biggest disservice we can do to them." Closure is not found in watching wrongdoers get fried. Closure is purchased with mercy. What bothers this author is the radical separation of one human from the rest of us. Her arguments are not just against putting criminals to death but against any unnecessary cutting of a wrongdoer's ties to family, friends, and society at large. Bosco is horrified at the increase over recent decades in the percentage of citizens incarcerated—a barbarity found in Canada as well as in the United States. Solitary confinement (often euphemistically called "close custody" or "administrative segregation") is another breach of connectedness she describes and deplores. So is the location of prisoners a great distance from those wanting to visit them.
Bosco has learned the prison system inside out and shares much information not commonly known. She reports, for instance, that long-distance phone calls to or from inmates in many prisons cost far more than calls to or from free citizens outside the walls. By special arrangements with telephone companies, charges are raised above the normal rates to subsidize the institutions' operating budgets—currently to the tune of $180 million a year. The effect is to discourage telephone contact between inmates and their families, who tend to have little money. This is counterproductive, Bosco argues, since cultivating such contact makes it less likely the prisoner will reoffend following release.
Authentic spirituality, once combined with factual knowledge, is a force to be reckoned with. Choosing Mercy, informed as it is by the faith of a Christian and a journalist's interest in the facts, is an extraordinarily engaging work. Bosco quotes David Kaczynski, a Buddhist and the brother of the infamous Unabomber: "Ultimately, capital punishment asks us to deny our human kinship and that, I believe, is a grave mistake, a confusion that makes it all too easy to judge others while making it more difficult to know ourselves."
The young man who murdered Antoinette Bosco's son and his wife was sentenced to life imprisonment, with no eligibility for parole until he reaches the age of 60.