Friday, June 30, 2017

Overcoming Fear

Overcoming Fear

by Ted Miller
(originally published July 2017 in Tumbleweird)

We like to label things.  It’s built in to our DNA.  It’s how we name things in language.  It’s how we tell someone it’s a dog, not a cat.  A Chihuahua, not a Great Dane.  We group things together that are the same and different in order to make sense of the world.  And we are taught to do so at an early age.  On Sesame Street we learn that “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong.” 

It’s important to be able to recognize things by their characteristics.  On a fundamental level, it’s how we have evolved to be able to recognize danger.  Our natural fear of things that can hurt us helps keep our curiosity in check with a healthy dose of respect for danger.  That’s why some people have an irrational fear of spiders or snakes even though most are beneficial and harmless to humans.

And as humans evolved in our social construct, we learned to recognize members of our own tribe and identify members of other tribes who were our enemies, our competitors for the same resources, threats to our survival.  The “others” were to be feared, to be kept away from our own kind, to be killed if they threatened us.

So, we have a natural, instinctual way of thinking about the world as “us versus them.”  The more different from us someone seems, the more difficult it is to think of them as one of us.  The more difficult it is to think of them as the same. The more difficult it is to not think of them as a threat.

Labels can be used to demonize others, to diminish them, to make a group less than human, and therefore make them not worthy of equal treatment.  That’s why we use pejoratives to label others that we don’t want in our group.  We use stereotypes to rationalize treating others differently.  In wartime, soldiers adopt racial or ethnic slurs to describe the enemy, to diminish them as something less than themselves.  If the enemy is less than human, if we don’t think of them as part of our tribe, it’s easier to kill them.  When one group of humans subjugates another, labeling that other group with pejoratives and negative stereotypes allows us to feel superior and rationalize that they deserve their lot in life.  If we associate all the negative stereotypes with a group, it’s easier to deny them their humanity.

And when our culture continues to reinforce those stereotypes, we continually reinforce our baser instinct to classify someone who is not like us as someone who doesn’t belong.  In a tense, life threatening situation, we instinctually react to someone who is different as a threat to our survival. 

And that’s why some police officers react differently to a black man solely because of the color of his skin.  In an instant of heightened anxiety, that animal instinct for survival kicks in and suddenly all the stereotypes of our culture overtake any rational thought and in an instant, a deadly, lethal mistake is made.  The reality of this has been in the news over and over again with stories of innocent black men unnecessarily killed by a police officer.  We as a society must figure out how to stop this.  We must learn how to overcome our biases and prejudices.  And we must start with those whom we trust most of all to serve and protect us. 

A friend of mine was recently pulled over for speeding. He was running late and only thinking about getting to his commitment, and in a moment of misjudgment, stepped out of his car as the policeman approached him. In spite of him holding up his hands, in spite of him calmly telling the officer he was late and admitting he had been speeding, suddenly he became a threat. A call for backup was made and seven other officers showed up. The situation escalated in an instant because my friend stepped out of his car. And, in all likelihood, because he is black.

I remember years ago getting pulled over for the same thing, and I remember getting out of my car to talk to the police officer because I thought that was a polite and less threatening approach. I didn’t think twice about it, and no backup was called. I don’t even remember if the police officer told me I shouldn’t have gotten out of the car. I never felt like I was in danger. I am white.

We have to change this.

We as humans are able to analyze and overcome our basic animalistic instincts.  We are able to use our intelligence to empathize, to recognize our common humanity, and to work hard to overcome our inherent biases and prejudices.

We can make a difference one conversation at a time, one story at a time, one friendship at a time.  Each of us has the ability to change our own perception, our own biases. Through our own actions, we can influence others to find our common humanity.

We can look for the things that unite us, that bring us together, that lift us all up as one.  And we can learn to recognize that we are all part of the same tribe.  We are all human.  We are all worthy of equal protection, equal rights, and equal treatment.  Even though we are each unique and none of us is like the other, all of us belong.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Death Penalty – What Is It Good For

The Death Penalty – What Is It Good For

by Ted Miller
(originally published June 2017 in Tumbleweird)

On December 23, 1991, Todd Willingham ran out of his burning house frantically screaming that his three young girls were burning up. The wooden house was quickly engulfed in flame and all three girls died from the fire. Willingham was subsequently accused of murder, convicted in the deaths of his children, and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2004, maintaining his innocence until the end. Since then, investigations have shown that witness testimony was questionable, forensic evidence was flawed, and the fire was accidental and not arson. In all likelihood, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for a crime he did not commit. How many other innocent people have been executed?

Last month, Arkansas rushed to execute death row inmates before their supply of a key lethal drug expired at the end of April. Assembly line executions to ensure justice under the law. But what kind of justice? What good does this barbaric practice of executing criminals do for our society? Does it act as a deterrent? Is it less expensive than life in prison? Is it fair? Is it just?

The United States is among a dwindling number of countries that have yet to abolish capital punishment. The countries with the most executions each year include China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea, and the United States.

Although some argue that the death penalty is an effective deterrent against certain crimes, the evidence does not support such a conclusion. The South carries out over 80% of the executions in the United states, yet has the highest murder rate of any U.S. region. That doesn’t correlate to deterrence. Whether a murder is pre-meditated or an act of heated passion in the moment, it is ludicrous to think the murderer spends any time at all considering whether they will face execution as a consequence of carrying out their crime. In fact, a 2009 article published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88% of expert criminologists believe there is no empirical evidence that executions reduce crime. And as Jimmy Carter reminded us in his April 2012 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, “the homicide rate is at least five times greater in the United States than in any Western European country, all without the death penalty.” The death penalty as a deterrent is myth.

The monetary costs associated with capital punishment are significantly more than those for similar cases where the death penalty is not sought. A January 2015 study published by Seattle University showed that for the 147 aggravated first-degree murder cases in Washington State since 1997, the average costs when the death penalty was sought were over one million dollars more expensive for each case than for similar non-death penalty cases. This was true even when including the cost of life imprisonment. When Governor Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on executions, he stated “the costs associated with prosecuting a capital case far outweigh the price of locking someone up for life without the possibility of parole.” States which still impose capital punishment spend tens of millions of dollars each year on death penalty cases with no corresponding reduction in crime for that cost.

Moreover, the death penalty is not applied fairly. Since 1973, more than 155 people were released from death row for any number of reasons:  faulty evidence, problems with the conduct of the trial, prosecutorial misconduct, defense ineptness, witness reliability, or other factors. In most of these cases, the individuals were innocent. Indeed, as in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, there are many cases where innocent men have been put to death with evidence later indicating it was not possible for them to have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to die.

One-hundred-fifty-five people wrongly convicted and sent to death row. Is it acceptable to sometimes execute innocent people? Is that really an acceptable cost to society? I’ve always agreed with Sir William Blackstone’s 18th-century principle that it is better for ten guilty persons to go free than one innocent suffer. That is the way of a just and fair society – protect the innocent. And with the death penalty, an innocent person executed by mistake is an atrocious action by the State that cannot be undone.

Statistics show that race is a significant factor in application of the death penalty. Black defendants are several times more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants in similar cases. For crimes where the victim is of a different race, a black defendant with a white murder victim is fifteen times more likely to be executed for their crime than a white defendant with a black murder victim ( This disparity is hardly an indication of an even application of justice.

The death penalty is expensive, ineffective as a deterrent, barbaric in its application, and unfair. There is no rational or compelling reason for the government to kill someone for any crime, no matter how terrible and heinous. Vengeance or retribution is an inadequate argument and cannot undo the harm already done. Criminals should be held accountable without putting them to death. Life in prison is a harsher and more appropriate sentence than a quick and painless death.

We as a society should be beyond an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Thirty-one states, including Washington, still have capital punishment on the books. It’s time for the United States to join the rest of the modern world and abolish the death penalty.