The Richard Hirschfeld penalty phase puts before us, once again, our values as a civilized society. These values were recently brought to mind in watching the play “Electra,” a tragedy by Sophocles, 413 BCE. Electra prompted Athenian citizens to examine the underpinnings of their democracy.
How, Sophocles asks, should we regard a civilization that demands that brutality be visited on offenders? If a society endorses eye-for-an-eye vengeance, can it call itself civilized?
Aeschylus’ “Oresteia,” 458 BCE, is a mythic account of the founding of the Athenian system of justice meant to supplant “vendetta.” The Oresteia was perhaps an expression of optimism, a hope that Athens would yet live up to its self-image as the world’s most civilized state.
Clearly, even 2,500 years later, our civilization, our democracy, has not resolved these questions. Even today, “Electra” presents confounding questions about justice, prompting its audience to confront difficult choices and, in doing so, declare its values.
We still must ask ourselves how killing in the name of the state, the death penalty, can be called anything other than the brutal, savage, vicious crime of murder it seeks to punish. Isn’t it worse to employ state sanctioned killing? Where is the justice? What does this say about the values of our society?
It’s not about what the brutal criminal deserves, but about who we are. Hirschfield’s death is at our hands.
Debbie Nichols Poulos