Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Marrying Death

What on earth are we to make of this?

LIVINGSTON, Texas – Romina Deeken is a classic beauty – long and lithe, cascading blond hair, green eyes set in alabaster – not the type of woman who needs to solicit attention from men.

But last year, the 24-year-old German reached out to a convicted killer on Texas' death row. Her motives were altruistic, she said, not romantic. In time, after more than 50 letters posted back and forth across the Atlantic, Ms. Deeken said, mutual feelings grew.

"I have a connection with him," she explained recently, shaking slightly, tears running down her cheek. "Everyone in life has a vision, has dreams, has fears, is searching for something. He is the person I can talk deeply with about these things."
Ms. Deeken's story is coffee shop talk in this small southeast Texas town, home of the maximum-security Polunsky Unit and death row.

Each month, dozens of travel-weary, love-struck European women arrive in Livingston for visits with condemned inmates, a pair of four-hour chats through Plexiglas. There is no touching.

Exactly why they come depends on who is asked. Experts say many of these women have been scarred by violence or sexual abuse, though that's not the case for any of the women interviewed for this story. Others say the women are motivated by compassion and a desire to nurture, or an attraction to the baddest of the bad boys.

I am a reluctant opponent of capital punishment. Not because it is intrinsically wrong – I am convinced that if a loved one of mine were killed I would want the offender to die – but because I do not trust the government, an entity that so magnifies all of man’s frailties, to carry out such a task. The idea of executing an innocent man strikes me as one of the highest state crimes imaginable.

But this does not make these men anything less than contemptible. It is the survivors of their victims, not the men themselves, who deserve our charity. And so why do they draw the attention of these women? They go to extraordinary expense – repeated flights back and forth between Europe and Livingston, even to the extent that two long-term inns, one owned by a European widow of an executed inmate, are profitable businesses. And all the while the impatient wheels of justice in Texas grind on, guaranteeing a disastrous outcome.

Economists are trained to believe that people are fit to rationally pursue their interests. But sometimes our faith, as many political thinkers might have put it, in reason is sorely tested. There are, one supposes, innumerable single men who are eminently more capable, more deserving of Ms Deeken's "altruism," of providing the things we traditionally think people want in lifetime companions – the ability to be a good father (conjugal visits are not even allowed for these wives), meaningful long-term companionship, the chance to pass through life’s challenges clear through to the end in partnership instead of alone. They are, one could say, eminently more deserving of these women’s attention.

But, self-evidently, none of these conventional desires are in play here. These men cannot do any of the things for which husbands are traditionally valued and cherished. So what is this about? The instinct to rescue a doomed cause through love? An act of ostentatious political self-expression, either against capital punishment itself or as a thumb in the eye of workaday society and its hopelessly bourgeois values? Or perhaps, as some have said, it is in the last stage of a culture's decadence that people become the most unmoored from the traditional anchors of right and wrong. Whatever the case may be, the women's behavior is most unimpressive. It is true, pace Pascal, that “the heart has its reasons, of which the mind knows nothing.” But that does not exempt these thoughtless (in both senses) reasons from critical introspection. I find myself as much contemptuous and disappointed as piteous. Is that harsh? I am uncertain; while the article asserts that "experts" say that these women often have history of being sexually abused, that seems to be true for none of the women quoted in it, who have been drawn in after joining anti-capital punishment groups. More than anything else, this behavior leaves me mystified.


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