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The Moral Chasm

In this undated photo provided by the family of Stanley Williams, Stanley "Tookie" Williams poses for a photo in the visiting area of San Quentin State Prison in California.
AP (file)
This column was written by Jack Dunphy.
A headline on page A37 in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times reads: Large Funeral Planned for Williams, Friend Says." The brief story that follows tells of preparations being made by Stanley "Tookie" Williams's longtime friend and collaborator Barbara Becnel to receive the executed man's body and stage a large public funeral in Los Angeles. The ceremony, the story says, will be "on a scale of the funeral for Rosa Parks."

So, in the eyes of Barbara Becnel (and, apparently, many others), a man who murdered four helpless people during the commission of two robberies, and who is sometimes credited with founding a street gang responsible for thousands of additional murders, is deserving of no less a tribute than that given to a pioneer of the civil-rights movement. This is what passes for enlightened thinking on the fringes of the American Left, which for years has lionized such homicidal thugs as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Yasser Arafat, and which now very noisily places Tookie Williams, like convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal before him, in this pantheon of heroes. How long will it be before someone proposes to name an elementary school after him?

I watched and listened to the television and radio coverage of Williams's execution Monday night and Tuesday morning, not to take any glee in the man's death but rather to see that justice, at long last, had been done. Though I support capital punishment and encouraged Governor Schwarzenegger to deny Williams's petition for clemency, I admit I was troubled by the broadcast descriptions of the condemned man's final hours. Only the truly heartless can be unmoved by the thought of a man, no matter how heinous his crimes, being led to the death chamber and killed.

I acknowledge my qualms about capital punishment even as I support it, and I can understand and engage in dialogue with those whose religious or moral convictions lead them to an opposite conclusion. My own wife is one such person. Like me, she is a Catholic, and she believes that all human life is sacred and can only be extinguished at the time of God's choosing. I, on the other hand, hew to the Old Testament standard that holds some crimes to be so grievous as to demand the perpetrator pay with his own life. (The instruction that murderers should be put to death is the only law that appears in all five books of the Torah.)

But while my wife and I may disagree on the morality of capital punishment, we are equally baffled by those death-penalty opponents who would go to the absurd extremes seen in the recent effort to spare as despicable a man as Tookie Williams. Some of Williams's supporters, against all evidence and common sense, declared him innocent. Others said that even if guilty he was deserving of clemency for having been "redeemed," the evidence of which was his authorship of a series of children's books that almost no one read and whose impact was negligible at best.

Typical of Williams's supporters was the ubiquitous Jesse Jackson, who on Tuesday morning stood vigil with a thousand or so other protesters outside the gates of San Quentin Prison. Tellingly, Jackson was unable to name even one of Williams's four victims when asked to do so by a Los Angeles talk-radio host.