Maybe Tucker's Death Will Prompt Our Shame
David Theis

I just came back from a long year in Saudi Arabia. Time passed slowly for us Westerners in the relative emptiness of life there. I and my colleagues whiled away the hours the only way we could -- gossiping about each other and, even more fervently, running down our host country. I joined in both activities, shaking my head at the sight of the women veiled in black, riding in the back seats of the cars they weren't allowed to drive. And then there were the highly amplified 3:45 a.m. calls to prayer, which nearly drove me to despair.

But about the most spectacular Saudi peculiarity -- their method of capital punishment -- I had little to say. I am from Texas, after all, where in 1997 we celebrated The Year of the Needle.

Not long after I arrived in Al Khobar, there was a public beheading which one of my fellow workers happened to witness. He was called upon to describe the scene many times, sometimes by me. So after a while, I felt I'd seen it with my own eyes: the hooded man (a Saudi) being led out onto the stage in the central area of the city, the removal of the hood to reveal his dull, no doubt drugged eyes, the nearly casual flash of the executioner's sword and the severing of head from body. Mercifully, there was no gusher of blood -- the drugs must have done their job in slowing his heart -- but still a dozen or so people in the crowd of maybe 200 fainted.

Perhaps they were relatives of the little boy the dead man had apparently sexually abused and murdered. (At least he wasn't being executed for the crime of practicing "black magic," as two people were last year.)

I didn't hear of any other beheadings, or "toppings," in Khobar/Dhahran the rest of the year, but they were much in the air. A pair of British nurses was charged with the murder of an Australian colleague, and in the expatriate community there was speculation about whether the Englishwomen would be executed. The smart money said no, that the Saudis hadn't executed any Westerner in years.

And there was no way that the Saudis would present the world with the spectacle of Western women being led to the chopping block. That just wasn't going to happen. And the smart money was right. Negotiating with the dead woman's brother, and obtaining his agreement to forgo the death penalty, the Saudis spared themselves the condemnation of the West.

Meanwhile, here in the wild wild West, we Texans are about to boldly go where the Saudis wouldn't. The wheels of death -- I won't call them justice -- are turning for Karla Faye Tucker, and I suppose they'll crush her right on schedule.

Tucker's execution is going to make us look bad. Tucker is an attractive, apparently rehabilitated, apparently well-loved woman. It's hard to say how exactly she poses an ongoing threat to society. Killing her in cold blood just looks like murder. The Europeans we want so badly to trade with, and whose cultural approval we so crave, will be shaking their heads in dismay once again, just as when I was vacationing in Spain and read in the papers there about our barbarous incarceration of the tragic Jose Aldape Guerra.

At least we didn't kill Aldape Guerra, who was almost certainly innocent of the charges against him. We will kill Tucker, who is guilty, of course, of murder.

But maybe some good will come of Tucker's death. Maybe killing a woman, especially this woman, will make us feel the shame the rest of the civilized world feels for us when we execute. Maybe we'll think again about the killing machine that we've built and whose workings our lawmakers and justices have recently greased.

The Saudi system looks barbaric even to us Texans, but they at least hold out the possibility of mercy. The senior man in a family who has lost a member to murder can stay the executioner's hand. I read about a near-execution in the United Arab Emirates that ended only when the executioner raised his sword. Only at that moment did the father who had lost his son call out, "Allahu ahkbar" (God is great), and the killer was spared.

I'm no fan of the Saudi justice system, but at least inside it you can detect the workings and will of a human being. Not so with our assembly line of cold-blooded death, which carries a whiff of the Nazi in its highly mechanical, we-have-to-let-the-system-work nature. (And in the way the deaths are now so tidy and quiet. According to a recent National Public Radio essay, you can walk past the near-downtown Huntsville death chamber at the moment of execution -- 6 p.m. -- and not even know someone is being killed a stone's throw away).

Even pro-death-penalty conservatives such as Pat Robertson now wonder what we are about here.

I hope that Karla Faye Tucker will somehow be spared. That by some miracle, our needle will not be able to penetrate her flesh. Failing that, I hope her utterly pointless death troubles our sleep (as it did mine tonight); that it moves us to hand our death needle in the museum beside Old Sparky, Texas' old electric chair.

Except in the rarest of cases, such as that of Timothy McVeigh, whom I see as having committed an act of war against our country, I don't want the state killing in my name. I personally want out of the death business as practiced here in Texas -- and especially in Harris County. It brings nationwide and worldwide shame upon us.

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