In the comments thread in last week’s conversation, I confessed some ambivalence about the position that I’ve staked out here: that it makes more sense to set the standard for conversation about the death penalty that it should be abolished in all circumstances, even in the astonishingly unlikely chance that we achieve a perfectly just criminal justice system that has no clear disparate impact on people of any rage, gender, class, or creed. I say that not because I think we’re more likely to achieve a durable opposition to the death penalty by relaying on pragmatic arguments rather than moral ones — I think it may initially seem easier to bring people in with pragmatic arguments, but that may not achieve the depth of consensus we hope for. But rather, I confess some ambivalence because I have never been the victim of a violent crime, and I’ve had the good fortune that no one in my family has been touched by violent crime either. I’d like to believe that if such a thing were to come to pass, I would resist the urge to take another person’s life, but I’m afraid that I wouldn’t, that the better angels of my nature would be decisively scattered and I would want what I now profess to abhor. Which I suppose is as good an argument for total abolition as any: if we can’t trust ourselves in moments of extremism, perhaps some tools should be taken away from us.
But on to The Green Mile. It’s a fascinating — and very sentimental movie — and to a certain extent, it’s not particularly useful as a basis for a real-world conversation about the death penalty. People who perform executions may have the experience of helping to kill innocent people — we know some of them certainly have. But they’re deeply unlikely to execute people who are not only innocent but honest-to-god saintly miracle workers who absolve them on the way to the electric chair, telling them, as John tells Paul, “You tell God the father it was a kindness you done.” But the movie is an intermittently powerful allegory about responsibility, and the way we distance ourselves from culpability and full understanding of what we’re doing.
That distance is part of the way Paul explains his work to his elderly listener, and to himself. “Death row was usually called the Last Mile. We called ours the Green Mile,” he says. “The floor was the color of faded limes. We had the electric chair. Old Sparky, we called it.” These are cute names for terrible things, the wait for your death at the hands of the state, the instrument of your death, which even when it goes well, is an ugly, traumatic thing — and far worse when your death is sabotaged by a sadistic prison guard. But the characters struggle with the distance that lets them do their day-to-day jobs, and the need to honestly confront what they do when they take a man’s life. We know Percy is disgusting not just because he’s cruel, but because when he deliberately sabotages an execution in a way that makes the man’s death prolonged and hideously painful, he tries not to witness what he’s wrought. By contrast, we feel sympathy with, not disgust for, Paul when he hesitates to give the order to execute John because he’s meditated on the terrible work he’s about to perform. His sense of duty and his sense of right conflict. And when we learn Paul is living out a vastly extended life because “It’s my torment. It’s my punishment for letting John Coffey ride the light,” I can’t help but wonder if he’d be tormented in the same way if he’d executed anyone else.
But the movie is much more muddled about the justice of executing people who aren’t innocent, or of doing terrible things to terrible people. Wild Bill is a terrible person, whether he’s murdering small children or harassing and assaulting people who are attempting to do their jobs and treat him decently. It’s hard to feel very sorry for him when he’s placed in solitary confinement in a straightjacket, hosed down with a firehose, or ultimately, shot by a possessed Percy. Similarly, when the guards put Percy in the straitjacket and confine him, with a gag taped in his mouth, so they can take John to the Warden’s house to heal his daughter, it’s hard to think of another option they might have had. And while it’s framed as an uncomfortable event, it’s mostly uncomfortable because there’s a risk Percy will rat them out, not because what they’re doing to this deeply stunted man is wrong. And at the end of the movie, when he winds up institutionalized, it’s hard to feel more sympathy for him than relief from the people who are safe for him.
In fact, I was struck by how the movie makes active pragmatic arguments for why it makes sense for the guards to behave decently, and passive ones for why it’s morally right. “You’d do better to think of this place as an intensive care hospital,” Paul warns Percy, suggesting that guards will be less likely to be injured on the job if the inmates are kept calm. “I think of it as a bucket of piss to drown rats in,” Percy spits back, unable to weigh his lust for cruelty against the prospect of others’ injury. And of course Paul is right. But some of the movie’s most moving sequences come as the guards prepare Del for his execution, playing with his mouse and promising that they’ll take care of it after his death, a kindness that costs them nothing, and does no harm, but that makes their experiences with Del, his last contributions on earth, about decency and amusement rather than cruelty. It doesn’t make up for the murder he committed. But then, nothing can.