Terrorist attacks affirm need for a shift in approach

Sister Helen Prejean, was portrayed in the movie Dead Man Walking which was based on her writings about the death penalty. She wrote this essay immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.



I’m on a U.S. Airways plane – half-filled – on my way back to New Orleans after a week of cancelled speaking engagements. I’ve seen American flags everywhere – in shops, on people’s suitcases, on the lapels of pilots and flight attendants.

Everybody’s been glued to the T.V., looking in disbelief at the sight of our own planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Everybody’s swapping stories of the horrors: a couple, holding hands, jumping to their deaths from 80 stories up; the man on one of the high-jacked planes calling his wife on his cell phone, “We took a vote, we’re going to overpower them, goodbye, I love you.”

We’re all in shock. Some say the entire nation is experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We’re gathering to mourn our dead and to try to figure out how to respond to the terrible evil perpetrated on us. We’re deeply puzzled that there could be people in the world who hate us so much.

We’ve learned how vulnerable we are and that all the defense systems in the world can’t protect us against such a terrorist attack.

Nor do we know who the terrorists are – certainly Osama bin Laden, who is rumored to dwell in Afghanistan, and his cohorts are prime suspects – but who else?

What other terrorists are out there ready to take bin Laden’s place should we “terminate” him? The question is looming large: what do we do for protection when our usual military tactics do not suffice? No doubt, we have enough firepower to bomb a lot of cities and a lot of people.

We could, as some are suggesting, “bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age.” But we are hearing desperate pleas from the people of Afghanistan, “Please, don’t kill us. We don’t support the horrendous Taliban that has taken over and terrorizes our lives.”

It’s going to take us some time to sort all this out. We’re all frightened and vulnerable, which can cause us to seek easy scapegoats.

Our immediate spiritual task, it seems, is to mourn the victims and to comfort those who have suffered unspeakable loss. John White, a friend of mine in New York, knew 30 people who were killed in the World Trade Center.

Other friends of mine in New York are spending their days visiting and praying with those who lost loved ones in the tragedy, including firefighters and police officers and their families.

Our deepest and more difficult task is to reflect on why this tragedy happened to us and how we can prevent it from ever happening again. That’s the hard part. Because when we’ve been hurt and are afraid, we tend to strike out at others from the surface of our souls where prejudice lies, not from the depths, where compassion lies.

At The Moratorium Campaign we are meeting to realign and to redouble our efforts to educate the public about the death penalty in light of the Sept. 11 assault.

I seriously question whether the death penalty, which acts out the military paradigm of “search out and destroy,” will serve us well against terrorists any more than it has served us well against those who commit violent crimes.

During the 25 years the death penalty has been reactivated in this country, supposedly to deter crime, we have discovered that the state killing people doesn’t deter anything – even the police chiefs across the country know this.

I believe that giving state governments this kind of power to kill our own citizens is dragging us all down morally. The application of the death penalty is abysmal.

Almost always poor people or the mentally ill are chosen for the gallows, and the whole business of state killing is riddled with racist selection from start to finish.

Plus, there is such rampant injustice in its practice that now many ordinary citizens know about and are troubled by the large number of innocent people – almost 100 at this date – who have been sent to death row and some almost killed before they could prove their innocence.

This past summer, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor remarked that she is troubled by the large number of innocent people who have been convicted at trials and later freed from death row. She worried out loud that the sheer “lottery” of such numbers almost assures that some innocent persons have already been executed.

The life-changing tragedy of Sept. 11 only reinforces my conviction that it’s time for our country to go beyond the military paradigm of “search and destroy” as a way to deal with problems of violence in our society.

It’s time for a new paradigm, and The Moratorium Campaign on the death penalty is needed more than ever to help build that new model.

In responding to terrorist acts, the new paradigm calls us to reflect deeper than simply labeling the perpetrators fanatics or evil incarnate and blindly trying to destroy them.

Such a response is opaque and blind and can only fuel more violence. We have to draw on our spiritual wisdom and go deep enough in our reflection to discover and build a road of peaceful relationships with the Arabic and other developing nations of the world.

What are the root causes of violence in our country, and is the use of violence by government powers – the execution of criminals – the only solution we know to contain and prevent that violence? The Catholic bishops of this country have given us a good spiritual motto: “If we want peace we must work for justice.”

That’s a new paradigm worth thinking about and praying about. The old military one of searching out and destroying enemies has had its day. It is time to begin building the new paradigm, no small part of which is the elimination of the death penalty in our society.