Tonight, the State of Texas executed a “killer.”
There is no question that, when he was 18 years old, Billy Wardlow killed an 82-year-old man while trying to steal his car. This made Mr. Wardlow a killer, according to the State of Texas, and therefore, the State claims, he should die.
But now that Wardlow has been executed, this world has by the State of Texas’s own definition a few more killers on its hands. It has the unnamed person who pumped poison into Billy Wardlow’s veins for 34 minutes until he died. It has Gwendolyn Vindell, the attorney in the Texas Attorney General’s Office who has spent the past few years, and particularly the past few weeks, fighting incessantly in the courts to ensure that Wardlow would be killed. It has Vindell’s bosses, Edward Marshall and Ken Paxton. It has the entire Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, plus Governor Greg Abbott, who could have stopped the execution and chose not to. And it has the slew of state and federal judges who chose not to intervene.
Tonight, according to the State of Texas, a “killer” is dead, but by that logic, many others were born.
Of course, “killer” is not the right term to encapsulate who any of these people are truly are. All have done what I believe to be a morally reprehensible thing, but all—Gwendolyn Vindell, Edward Marshall, Ken Paxton, Greg Abbott, and Billy Wardlow—are more than that one thing.
This is not a new concept. Bryan Stevenson’s coined phrase “each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done” adorns the t-shirts and tote bags of liberal law students, and as he has said in his now-famous Ted Talk, even if you’ve killed someone, you’re not just a killer.
However, the concept of a “killer,” and its utter uselessness as a term, has continued to bother me.
While I disagree with the argument that in killing Wardlow the people who facilitated his killing are somehow doing something different than what he did, I at least understand the logic of it. They’re killing a “guilty” person, while he did not. This innocent/guilty, victim/perpetrator dichotomy is not based in reality, but I understand where it comes from in the abstract.
But what strikes me as strange is how easily we accept the idea that Billy Wardlow—who was, by all indications, a very good person—was a “killer,” but others who kill “innocent” people under the aforementioned false dichotomy are not.
Take Greg Abbott. Perhaps he can argue that he has only killed the “guilty” under this dichotomy when fighting to kill people on death row, and therefore, he is no “killer.” But Abbott has knowingly killed thousands of “innocent” people. For instance, Abbott knows that by refusing to expand Medicaid in his state, he is killing 730 people per year. Yet he has not expanded Medicaid.
Ironically, in the editorial pointing out this death toll, the editorial board of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times explicitly stated that it would not consider Abbott a “murderer” for killing these 730 people. But I have little doubt that they would call Billy Wardlow a murderer. My question is why? Both knowingly killed.
Or consider Barack Obama. Despite knowing that his continued support of Saudi Arabia and bombing of Yemen would lead to “unjustified” deaths, such as when the U.S. bombed a wedding, he okayed the drone bombing apparatus anyways. He at the very least recklessly allowed the killing of a 16-year-old American boy in Yemen, as well. He also deported many people with viable asylum claims to their torture and death. Few outside the far right would designate Obama a “killer.” But if Billy Wardlow is, why isn’t Obama?
There are countless other examples of this disconnect. There’s Henry Kissinger, who ordered the carpet-bombing of Cambodian peasants for no good reason but is still widely praised by the foreign policy establishment in D.C. There’s Madeleine Albright, who famously said the U.S.’s political sanctions that she helped impose on Iraq were “worth it,” even though they were estimated to have killed 500,000 children. There’s George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who lied us into a war. There’s Ronald Reagan, who chose to let tens of thousands of people die rather than do anything about the AIDS epidemic. And of course, there’s Donald Trump.
My point here is not to say that all of these people should be prosecuted or punished, just like Billy Wardlow has been. I’m not someone who thinks we should be sending Henry Kissinger, or anyone for that matter, to The Hague. My point is this: There is no principled difference between what Billy Wardlow did and what all of these people we are loathe to deem “killers” have done. If anything, Wardlow is less morally culpable than many of the people listed above. Unlike many of them, Wardlow is remorseful, has profoundly changed, and has admitted his mistakes. The others have not.
So knowing that we have so many “killers” among us, what are we going to do about it? Billy Wardlow’s execution makes clear that it is impossible for a just society to make examples out of certain “killers.” As this piece has explained, that term will always be under-inclusive, meaning the poor and people of color will primarily be the ones to pay for harm they have inflicted, while the powerful will just receive more power for inflicting much greater harm.
The answer is to treat everyone, even those who have inflicted harm on others, not as “killers,” but as human beings who are more than their best qualities and more than their worst. It is to recognize that with certain power or having undergone particular trauma, any of us could inflict the same harm as Greg Abbott or Barack Obama or Billy Wardlow. It is to recognize that separating society into “killers” and “upstanding citizens” is not only impossible, but a massive waste of time.
The goal of our society should not be to punish people who inflict a very specific kind of harm—that is, punishing a narrow group of the people who kill. This cannot, and has not, solved problems in our society. Rather, our goal should be to build a better world where less harm exists. We should be investing in transformative justice systems to eradicate harm, not what the state deems to be crime. We should be investing fully in social programs to ensure that nobody dies from lack of community support, as happens far too often in Texas. We should be harnessing our imaginations to create a better world for everyone.
Instead, we execute “killers.” If that continues to be our solution, the killing will never end.