In this excerpt from 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty (Seven Stories Press, 2015), Italian activist Mario Marazziti describes the worldwide campaign against capital punishment and lighting up Rome’s Coliseum to mark humanity’s progress.
My first memory of the death penalty is from 1960, when I was 8 years old. In California, a man named Caryl Chessman was fighting the justice system without a lawyer—playing chess with the state. He had written several books, and his fame was such that Time magazine put his picture on its cover and the Italian papers were following his story in the days leading up to his execution. When Chessman was put to death, the news story I read about it included some sketches: the gas chamber, how it works, the poison pill sent from the top to a basin with water, the gas starting, the condemned man choking. I do not have many memories from those years, which were difficult ones in my life, but I still remember those sketches of a man dying in a gas chamber.
A few years later, I joined a group of students who had begun to meet at the Chiesa Nuova, an old and much-loved Borromini church in the center of Rome, at the initiative of Andrea Riccardi, a student at the Virgilio, a nearby high school. One thing led to another, and the Community of Sant’Egidio was formed, named after an abandoned convent in Rome that later became our headquarters. Over the years, and then the decades, the community took root in local communities in over 70 countries. We saw the spread of violence in the big cities of the West and the Global South; we saw the destructive power of the various clans of organized crime, from the camorra to the maras. And we sought solutions. As we witnessed new friends becoming victims in civil wars, we participated in efforts to bring about reconciliation and peace in many countries of the world, and successfully brokered peace accords from Mozambique to Guatemala, from Burundi to the Ivory Coast, from Liberia to the Balkans, and from Kosovo to the Congo and El Salvador. We helped bring about a lasting “preventive peace” after a series of coups in Niger and the end of dictatorship in Guinea-Conakry. And today a similar effort is being made in Central Africa, in Mali, and in Senegal in the Casamance region, where one of the longest local African wars has been raging for decades. Most recently, we contributed to the peace agreement that stopped a 40-year conflict in Mindanao, the Philippines, between Christians and Muslim rebels. We sought to make the Community of Sant’Egidio a point of reference for reflection on the many forms of violence prevailing in our time—from poverty to genocide—and sought to use dialogue as a tool in areas where “realism” had turned to skepticism and finally to resignation.
Naturally, our attention turned to capital punishment.
We wanted to do away with the “culture of death.” And it became clear to us that the best way to reduce violence in society was to abolish the death penalty.
Capital punishment is the culmination of violence at both ends of society: the violence of the individual criminal, who is caught in a cycle of violence and whose life ends in a violent death; and the violence of the state, with its police forces and wars whose ultimate expression is the use of violent death as a form of retributive justice. In the middle, there is pain and sorrow for the families of the victims and of those who are sentenced to death, and for all the people with roles to play in the execution process. At the end of the day, capital punishment is a prison for the individual and society alike.
The death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent for crime, though it can be used very effectively as a way for religious majorities to oppress minorities, eliminate political adversaries, create terror, and spread worldwide propaganda, as ISIS has shown when it makes headlines across the globe with its beheadings in Syria and Iraq. It is not a tool of justice because it always affects religious, social, racial, and ethnic minorities in unjust, disproportionate ways. It is a form of torture in the way it forces the condemned to ponder the end of his or her life, often for years, before it finally comes. It lowers all society to the level of the killer, and does not restore life to the victim, but compounds one death with another. It is a sanction that cannot be fixed if unjustly applied.
It is a legitimization of the culture of death from the highest level of worldly authority.
But isn’t the execution of heinous criminals the least we can do for their victims? I remember the comment of a 10-year-old boy: “They’re going to kill him because he killed somebody, so when they kill him, who do we get to kill?”
Direct and personal contact with prisoners, executioners, and the families of victims and executed convicts, both innocent and guilty, has led us at the Community of Sant’Egidio to the conviction that the death penalty is not merely unnecessary in light of the alternative instruments of punishment and justice available. In truth, it is not itself an instrument of justice at all; it is a grave weakness in a system of justice that should preserve its rehabilitative intent, free of the primitive need for revenge and retribution. It winds up being not only a violation of human life, but a humiliation for everybody: a murder in circumstances in which the concept of legitimate defense cannot be invoked because of the disproportionate forces involved (the state on one side, a prisoner who is not in a position to harm others on the other), and because of the distance in time between the crime or presumed crime and the proposed execution. As a matter of fact, when the state kills a serial killer, it becomes a killer.
It seems clear to us that capital punishment is a practice to be overcome in the history of mankind, as slavery has been largely overcome. It’s possible to envision a world in which capital punishment no longer exists.
In Rome, where I live, the Coliseum is a symbol of our history, but it is also a symbol of the death penalty. There the early Christians were subjected to capital punishment by the imperial Roman authorities, left to the lions, reduced before the crowd to a bloody spectacle.
One night in 1999, the Coliseum was lit up. Albania had abolished the death penalty, and some of us in the Community of Sant’Egidio got the idea to mark this turn of events through the lighting of the landmark. Our idea (a joint venture with the mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, and a U.N. representative, Staffan de Mistura) was to use the lighting of the Coliseum as a tool in a worldwide campaign against the death penalty. Since that night the Coliseum has been lit up several dozen times more, including when the governor of Illinois commuted the sentences of all the state’s death row prisoners in 2003, and when the states of New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, and New Mexico repealed their capital punishment laws.
We hope that the Coliseum will keep on being lit up regularly until the death penalty is abolished everywhere.
This excerpt from 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty by Mario Marazziti (Seven Stories Press, 2015) appears by permission of the publisher.
Mario Marazziti is an Italian journalist, executive, and politician. Currently a deputy in the Italian parliament, he is also an executive at RAI, an opinion writer at Corriere della Sera, and a representative of the Community of Sant'Egidio.