Yesterday, Chez Pazienza wrote a heartfelt and thought provoking piece on the execution of child killer Juan Carlos Chavez. Chez argued that Chavez’s crimes against nine year old Jimmy Ryce were so horrific that he deserved to die (and that he did – Chavez was executed last night at 8.17pm ET). And after reading about the last few hours of Jimmy’s life, it’s difficult to disagree. Chavez brutally raped the young boy for hours in a trailer, killed him by shooting him in the back, then dismembered him and chopped off his head. It was a crime so horrifically sadistic and cruel that it is almost beyond comprehension. Chavez showed little remorse for his crime, making his own death all the more satisfying for those affected by his monstrous actions.
My own gut reaction to the crime was much the same as Chez’s. Upon reading details of the case, I found myself imagining killing Chavez in a fit of righteous rage – putting the world right by ridding it of an evil psychopath who existed only to cause harm to others.
But after I calmed down, I didn’t feel quite so sure about Chavez’s death – and that’s because I don’t think I’d be able to kill him myself.
Let me explain.
I have been involved in Martial Arts for many years and have spent countless hours perfecting physical movements designed to hurt an opponent. I have boxed, kick boxed, taught Krav Maga, and trained heavily in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I have traded blows with professional fighters, and rolled Jiu Jitsu with some of the best competitors in the world. I am by no means a professional fighter, but I understand violence and how to use it. I have also unfortunately found myself in some pretty serious self defense situations over the years, some of which turned nasty very quickly.
On one particular incidence, I was followed into a parking lot late at night in Los Angeles by a guy on drugs who wanted to beat me up and (at least I think) steal my date. I tried to pacify the guy over and over again, but with little success. I started to argue back, hoping he’d understand I wasn’t going to just give in, but it only made matters worse. Very quickly, the confrontation turned incredibly violent with both of us swinging punches and kicks at each other. I won’t go into too much detail, but it didn’t end well for the guy, who I left on the floor before taking myself off to hospital to get treated for a broken finger, a cut eye, potential concussion, and laceration marks all over my neck and chest.
In the weeks after the confrontation, I felt physically and emotionally drained. I had nightmares about killing or severely disabling my attacker, and didn’t want to do any Martial Arts training for months. When my hand healed and I got back to boxing, I had to stop a sparring session after I caught my training partner with a solid punch as it induced a horrible flashback of the event.
I talked with few friends about the guilt I felt, all of whom told me I had nothing to feel bad about. “He deserved it,” one friend told me. “The guy was an asshole and needed to get the shit kicked out of him”. And to a certain extent, that was true. The guy was a violent bully who needed to be taught a lesson. But it wasn’t my friend who had beaten him into a bloody pulp. I had.
And that is the reason why I’m deeply troubled by the death penalty, and any other form of physical retribution for a violent crime. Because someone else has to engage in another act of violence to ‘put right’ the original act. While this is obviously necessary in self defense situations (both personal and in war), when there is another option, I don’t see how it is beneficial to use more violence as a solution. In Werner Herzog’s documentary about the death penalty ‘Into the Abyss’, Herzog interviews former Texan executioner Fred Allen, who killed over 125 prisoners via lethal injection. Allen gave up his profession after an emotional breakdown during which he found himself incapable of doing more harm to anyone else.
While it is easy to talk about putting people to death, actually doing it is something entirely different – an act Allen did on a routine basis. I’m not suggesting those who advocate the death penalty are bad people – I waver myself constantly, and deeply sympathize with those affected by horrific crimes of violence. If someone committed an act of heinous violence against a loved one, I hope to God the police would catch the perpetrator before I did. While I preach non-violence, I know I’m just as capable of it as anyone else. But I don’t think I’m ready to consign someone to death unless I’m actually willing to commit the act myself – and knowing how violence has affected me before, I’d put as many obstacles as possible in front of me to prevent it. If we accept that we are a part of a society, we must take collective responsibility for the actions done in the name of that society. The justice system is an integral part of that, and putting a child rapist to death is something we do together. It isn’t something I can honestly put my name to, because I don’t think I’d be willing to pull the proverbial trigger myself.
The truth is, I will never fully recover from the beating I gave another human being, because regardless of what he did to deserve it, I feel the act of violence in itself is wrong. Perhaps killing Chavez was necessary – he was a predator and a danger to all human beings. But was it right for us to avenge Ryce’s death using more violence? Of that, I’m not so sure.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.