TWO WEEKS AGO, 33–year–old Tariq Brown was arrested on the southside for burglary and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
It marked the 25th time Brown has been arrested in Savannah.
That’s not a typo. Twenty–five arrests. One guy.
Brown, a parolee, has previously been imprisoned five times. Most recently, he began a plea–bargained 20–year sentence on nine burglary charges — also not a typo — in February 2008. But he was released in December of last year.
His 20–year sentence lasted a little over two.
On the other end of the state and in another world figuratively is 42–year–old Troy Davis, accused of the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail.
Davis has been on death row for the last 20 years.
Thanks largely to the automatic appeals process for death penalty cases, for two decades courts have adjudicated Davis’s case and confirmed his conviction time and time again, ending with the U.S. Supreme Court. For two decades taxpayers have picked up the tab for his care and feeding.
His last appeal for clemency has been denied and he is set to be executed Wednesday.
Tariq Brown, Troy Davis.
One seemingly immune to the justice system, laughing at it. The other fated to spend half his life inside it, never to leave alive.
There’s got to be a sane middle ground.
I’m not against the death penalty in theory. Contrary to popular opinion, the Old Testament phrase “eye for an eye” is not an exhortation to barbarism. Quite the opposite.
In Biblical times, if you messed with the wrong person, you not only paid with your life, but with torture and likely the lives of your loved ones. You and your whole family would be wiped out, savagely and arbitrarily.
So the Old Testament teaching of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was intended as a civilizing influence. To keep the carnage to a minimum. Manageable, you might say.
One can argue that in this day and age the death penalty is immoral and indefensible — and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree — but state–sanctioned capital punishment in fact has deep moral roots going back to the very beginning of Judeo–Christian society.
Going by Google search alone, one would think that public opinion is overwhelmingly against the death penalty and overwhelmingly supportive of Troy Davis. From Joan Baez to the Pope to your friendly local bishop, supporting Davis’s appeal against his death penalty has become a cause celebre all over the world.
Much of that support is hard to qualify. Some of it, such as the Catholic Church’s, is grounded in a simple abhorrence of the death penalty, regardless of Davis’s guilt or innocence.
Much support for Davis, however, explicitly claims his innocence and focuses on the racial disparities involved with capital punishment in the U.S. (he is African American).
A not–insubstantial number of Davis’s advocates sincerely believe that the only reason Davis was on trial at all is because a cop was shot, specifically a white cop. The contradiction between their compassion for Davis and their callousness toward MacPhail’s family seems hard to reconcile.
Meanwhile, polls show that in reality an overwhelming number of Americans still support the death penalty. In the same way that most Americans are pro–choice on the question of abortion — but don’t actually think abortion is a good thing — most Americans also seem to support the death penalty in a pragmatic, non–vocal fashion (those more vocally supportive Tea Partiers at presidential debates excepted).
Looking ahead, the point may be moot, at least to us if certainly not to Davis. His case and Casey Anthony’s may be among the last of the high–profile death penalty cases. They clearly show in their own ways that capital punishment may simply not be worth the state’s trouble anymore.
The issue getting lost in the shuffle is the fact that the legal system which functioned so inexorably in the case of Davis seems to have completely broken down in the case of people like Tariq Brown, the man Savannah Police have arrested 25 times.
If we were collectively in our right minds we’d all be as concerned about Brown’s case as we are Davis’s. Where are the petitions and marches and celebrity interviews calling for a prison sentence for Brown that isn’t a total joke?
To be sure, there’s no murder involved, and we must take that into account (“an eye for an eye”). But if you’re breaking into someone’s house while carrying a gun, as Brown has been charged with doing, murder is only a moment of panic and the twitch of a finger away.
The fact that a recidivist felon could so egregiously flout the legal system and continue to be, if the charges are true, a clear and present danger on the streets of Savannah after being arrested two dozen times and imprisoned five is truly a damning indictment of where we are as a society.
I would submit, perhaps as damning an indictment as the continued existence of the death penalty itself.
Unlike Brown, Troy Davis has become more symbol than person — a symbol of the shame of the death penalty for some, of final punishment for a cop–killer for others.
Surely Tariq Brown should be a symbol as well: a symbol of unpunished, unrehabilitated recidivism that probably has a more long–lasting negative impact on the rest of us than those comparatively (thankfully?) rare times when capital punishment is used.
If we’re going to run our society by symbols, let’s at least pick them carefully.
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