The other night Clayton Lockett got tortured to death here in Oklahoma. He raped a woman, then shot another in the stomach with a sawed-off shotgun, then dumped her in a shallow grave and buried her alive. Oklahoma refused to release what all was in that cocktail they administered to the inmate, and then they shot him up with it, and he burned from the inside out. He died of a heart attack.
A big thing I see going around is “sorry if I don’t feel bad for a rapist/murderer” or, when referencing the other guy scheduled for death, a murdering baby rapist. I see this a lot from authors.
Here’s my issue, and yeah I’m gonna relate this back to crime fiction, which might seem trivial. But I don’t think so. Crime fiction is a way that we can understand both ourselves and our fellow man, their struggle, plight, and failures, through literature. It’s important that it’s written thoughtfully and with empathy, or it’s not doing its job. It’s just glorified poverty porn.
I don’t feel sorry that Clayton Lockett is dead, nor do I feel sorry that Charles Warner is going the same way. Their absence from this mortal coil is probably for the best. In an objective sense. Sometimes the machinery in our person breaks down and we become monsters. And you have to put monsters away.
However, as a human being, I feel empathy that a human being died painfully for 43 minutes.
In crime fiction, there’s a lot of revenge fantasy going on. Usually a bad guy does something bad to a less-bad guy, and eventually the less-bad guy (or heck, maybe just the person we’ve been unlucky enough to be saddled with, through POV) caps the bad guy or tortures him and we all cheer. There’s this simplicity to it that is deeply satisfying.
The problem with this, is that it pretends that we’re not all humans. We have complex, functioning brains.
We can have a moral code in our fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that. For example, in my mind, what brings people the most pain is by doing what’s easy. You can trace evil things back to that. To how easy it was in comparison to what was hard, and right. The mistake that so often happens is that a lot of authors then assign different characters as avatars of one thought-system or another. And the message becomes heavy handed: the evil pay for their mistakes, or hell, maybe evil gets away with it. Both of these outcomes, as overall theses in novels and short stories, are boring. Novels shouldn’t be wish fulfillment or alarmist fantasies. They should be about people, and about what it means to be human, and how we’re all surviving, and how we’re all dealing with the idea that we might die at any day, and there might not be anything waiting for us afterward.
But because a lot of writers are lazy, we get a lot of stories that go into this weird, sticky, but somehow completely accepted territory that is, “It’s okay to do bad things to bad people.” The Tarantino zone, as it were. There’s this fascinating film called I Saw the Devil. In it, a serial killer murders a supercop’s girlfriend. The supercop tracks down the serial killer within fifteen minutes of the film’s opening. The rest of the film is this catch-and-release game, where the supercop will find the serial killer, break one of his bones, torture him, etc., and then let him go. At first it’s deeply satisfying, in that ugly way. But the film is saying something fascinating. The killer, each time he is set free, does ever-more deplorable things. He rapes, he murders. All so that the supercop can extend his personal revenge. The film seems to be saying that people like the killer shouldn’t be allowed to go free and hurt anymore, but that revenge of the type inflicted by our hero is just as damaging. When we take revenge, it’s self-serving. It’s not righting any wrongs. The act still took place. The supercop’s girlfriend is just as dead. See also: Lady Vengeance, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
So, how does this wrap back around to the very real issue of Clayton Lockett? When I read comments that say, “I’m not sorry he suffered,” what that says to me, is that there’s something missing there. Or maybe an over-developed revenge gland. The comment is not, “I’m glad that he can’t hurt anyone anymore.” It’s not, “I’m glad that whatever evil light was inside of him got snuffed out,” but rather, “I am glad that he experienced immeasurable pain.”
That, to me, is fucking weird.
And if that’s actually how you feel about a real-life human being, I shudder to think of how you treat your fictional characters. And it’s important how you treat those characters. Because our words shape reality, in small ways. I’d rather the words jump over walls rather than build them higher.
But that’s just me. I don’t know.