John Hallinan: Death penalty forecloses our chances to be human

By John Hallinan

A decade ago my sister Claire and her husband Bernie died in a hotel fire. Their three sons were with them, but managed to survive. Two others also died in the fire. This tragedy brought more grief and despair on our families than I would have thought bearable.

Five months later the tragedy was made worse, when we found out the hotel owner had been arrested for arson as part of an insurance scam. How could the lives of four people be worth a few pieces of silver? How could the pain and suffering ever be repaid?

Bernie’s family and ours had scheduled a meeting to discuss taking care of the boys, and some of the other details regarding the estate. Bernie’s father, Abe, although in poor health, was at the meeting. His daughter encouraged him to tell the story of his concentration camp being liberated at the end of World War II.

Abe described how, when Allied soldiers liberated his concentration camp, the camp guards donned the rags of the prisoners, and tried to blend into the background. The soldiers knew this was going on, but didn’t know how to tell the guards from the prisoners. An officer asked Abe, “Which are the Germans?” To which Abe replied, “Look at their shoes.”

The guards had changed their clothes, but failed to change their shoes. After the guards were rounded up, an officer handed Abe his gun. Abe looked at the officer, and the officer told him to go ahead and shoot. Abe told the officer he couldn’t, because it would make him no better than them, and he handed the gun back.

For a second time in his life, Abe was faced with a decision: Should those who killed his children be put to death? This is a decision no one should have to face a single time in his life now he was being asked the question a second time.

Abe was still able to say that putting a man to death made us no better than the murderer, and we would be “less than human.”

The hotel owner, whose name is Kumar, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Some make the claim that a life sentence is more punishment than the death penalty. I no longer buy this argument. Unfortunately, no punishment will bring justice. There is nothing you can do to murderers that will ever make up for the pain and suffering they have caused. The death penalty is revenge, and nothing more.

Society is perfectly justified in putting these people away for life, so they can no longer inflict pain and suffering on others. Allowing them to live opens up the possibilities of what it truly means to be human. Perhaps someday Kumar will repent his crimes, and try to do something useful with the rest of his life. Perhaps one day I will find the strength to forgive him. Perhaps some other relative, or one of Bernie and Claire’s sons, will find the strength to forgive.

Do I think any of these scenarios are likely? No, none of these things are likely to happen, but to put Kumar to death rules out all these possibilities. It rules out the chance to show our humanity, and even if that chance is slim, it is important to hold onto that slim chance. Putting someone to death rules out the chance to be as human as Abe.

The following New Year’s holiday, Bernie’s sister took the boys to Florida to see their grandparents. Abe was in very poor health. They saw him one last time on a Friday, and flew back to Chicago on Saturday morning. Abe died Saturday night. It was exactly one year since Claire and Bernie died.

Abe was buried in a cemetery on the west side of Chicago. A portion of the cemetery had been set aside for people from his village in Poland who had survived the Holocaust. He was buried next to a childhood friend, 4,000 miles from where they had grown up. Abe was a simple man, but he taught a profound lesson about what it means to be human.

John Hallinan lives in Stoughton.
Published: August 9, 2006

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