The US death penalty debate is back in the national spotlight thanks to a 9/11 hate-crime victim who was shot at and blinded in one eye, but is campaigning for his shooter's death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment.
In September 2001, crazed by the death of his sister in the World Trade Centre, a heavily tattooed, bandana-sporting stone-cutter named Mark Stroman set out with his shotgun. He killed two men, assuming they were Arabs (one was an Indian Hindu, the other a Pakistani Muslim), and then walked into a gas station and shot into a third man's terrified face after asking "Where are you from?".
Rais Bhuiyan, who is also not an Arab but a Bangladeshi, survived, but had to undergo four operations and now lives with a dead eye and a face and head pitted with metal lumps. Remarkably, then, the 37-year-old aeronautics graduate who quit the Bangladesh air force to fly to the US in search of "more freedom", has been working with Amnesty and Stroman's lawyer to reduce Stroman's sentence. He says his main crime is ignorance and that killing him will only continue "the cycle of hitting and hitting back". Bhuiyan has been accused of being motivated more by the glitter of publicity than the glow of forgiveness, but whether or not that is true, this case is significant for several reasons.
For one, it is stacked with some of the most volatile issues shaping America's political narrative today, from the rise of a dangerous hyper-patriotism and Islamophobia after 9/11 to a simmering hostility towards working-class immigrants. Stroman, who flies the US and Confederate flags from his cell, said that he wanted to kill "foreigners" because they threatened "the American way of life", choosing in the process, three brown men who, if anything, were busy trying to perpetuate, not destroy, the American dream.
A few months ago, the eminent historian Gary Wills, who is known for his bracingly direct manner, was asked by television comedian Stephen Colbert what he thought was the most divisive issue in America today – the new "slavery" – and he answered in one word "Muslims". Even if Stroman's hate crimes can be explained away as the madness of a bereaved white supremacist, there is nothing aberrational or reflexive about the anti-Muslim gasoline that the country's rightwing media brazenly peddles, and which burst into flames last year over the proposal to construct an Islamic centre two blocks from Ground Zero.
Second, Stroman's "legal homicide" is to take place in Texas, a conservative bastion that leads the nation in the number of executions by a staggering margin, accounting for 470 of the 1,258 killings in the US since 1976. If any state needs to talk about this degrading, vicious and medieval form of punishment, it is Texas. The fact that this conversation has been triggered by an American Muslim (Bhuiyan got his citizenship last year), who quite literally has foregone his right to an eye for an eye, is an irony worth savouring. On her anti-death penalty tours, Helen Prejean, the tough old Catholic nun who wrote the best-selling memoir Dead Man Walking, never fails to smelt the deeply racist connection between America's Bible states, slavery states and death states with the gleeful punchline: "The more people go to church, the more they believe in the death penalty."
Third, and perhaps most important, here is yet another case of a victim opposing the death penalty. Bhuiyan, who keeps in touch with the other two victims' families, says that one of the families is actively supporting him, thereby countering the pro-death camp's argument that while it's all very well for nuns and liberals to sing from the abolitionist songbook, families whose loved ones have been murdered, raped or tortured have an emotional and moral need to see the perpetrator punished with death in order to get some kind of justice and closure. This, despite the anguished testimony of innumerable victims' families that capital trials, with their endless hearings and appeals, only prolong their trauma, and that, eventually, when the execution does take place, watching the offender die brings neither catharsis nor redemption.
Despite the stigma of being the only developed country to continue it, America continues to support capital punishment (two-thirds of the population is in favour) as does its current president. But there is hope. Death sentencing has dropped drastically in the last decade. This year, Illinois became the 16th state to shut down death row, citing the error-prone system that results in innocents being executed as its chief reason. With each capital trial costing millions, bankrupt states such as California will be hard put to justify the continuance of this exorbitant death ritual, especially when the nation's police chiefs rank it as the least effective deterrent to violent crime.
Finally, the death machine itself is creaking. Pharmaceutical companies in the US and Europe have refused to manufacture the drug used by prisons in the lethal injection. A small Mumbai firm was the sole supplier of sodium thiopental to 34 US states, but after it announced in April that it would stop, bureaucrats are scrambling for an alternative. Rais Bhuiyan has one.http://www.guardian.co.uk...8/us-death-penalty-victim