Zach Rossetti believes that if you must kill for justice
sides on this fundamentally flawed question.
I believe first that it is surrealistic to execute anyone in the name of justice. But since the death penalty is currently legal in 37 states, it is essential that we—as educators, advocates, and agitators—reject the either-or question.
For starters, mental retardation, like mental illness, is a social construct perpetuated by those who seek to systematize and segregate rather than appreciate and celebrate. If you can show what you know in the ways that society expects and respects, you are considered smart. If you are not able to SHOULD A CONVICTED MURDERER with an I.Q. of 59 be executed? And why not? Because he is too “defective” to have contributed to his defense? Too childlike to understand the consequences of his actions? Too not-one-of-us to deserve anything but pity?
Or is it because no one should be executed in the first place and because society labels people as “retarded” only when it wishes to set them apart?
On February 21, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Daryl Renard Atkins to deter-mine if it is cruel and unusual punishment for the government to execute people with that label. Among the groups filing friend of the court briefs on his behalf were the National Council on Disability, the Bazelon Center, and the Arc.
In 1996, Atkins was sentenced to death in Virginia for kidnapping and murder, his conviction affirmed on appeal, his sentence upheld. Atkins did not graduate from high school, failed the second and tenth grades, and, based on his score on IQ tests, is believed by some to be the cognitive equivalent of a 9 year-old.
In 1989, the Court, in Penry
v. Lynaugh, determined that executing people with mental retardation did not violate the Eighth Amendment. Now the Court will hear the Atkins case in accord with terms it set forward in Penry: society’s “evolving views of justice, compassion, and decency.”
Human Rights Watch and other guardians of our civil rights argue that people with mental retardation should be exempt from the death penalty for reasons quoted in the first paragraph above. Consequently, the lines are being drawn. The get-tough-on-crime folks say, “fry ‘em,” while human rights advocates cry for public pity.
The Court and the public are being asked to engage in the wrong debate. When we believe that people with the label of
— American University Washington College of Law; “Focus on Capital Punishment Project” 11/14/2001
mental retardation should be exempt from capital punishment we are condoning the inevitability of both: that there is (and should be) a death penalty, that there is (and should be) a label of mental retardation.
We are allowing the powers that be to force us into choosing communicate your abilities—or if you buck the system and demonstrate your abilities in unusual ways—you are smacked with labels that devalue both you and your unique qualities. Once labeled, you are treated to lower expectations and substandard opportunities for educa-
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tion. The label itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It doesn’t stop there. Literature in the field of MR will tell you not only that mental retardation does exist, but that it is “a lifelong condition.” Yet Deaf people were once labeled retarded because they did not speak. People who were blind were not educated because they could not read. Stephen Hawking, renowned for his brilliance, cannot recite the alphabet without his touch-talk computer. Had he been born 20 years earlier, he would have been labeled “mentally retarded” — probably severely or profoundly so!
label of mental retardation is grounded in two traditional beliefs that many of us rejected long ago. First, it is firmly rooted in the medical model, perpetuating the notion that people with disabilities are deficient and defective.
Second, to believe in retardation you must also buy the myth that intelligence is fixed and singular. The theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993) exploded that myth. Even so, I.Q. tests are still given to children to determine how “smart” or “dumb” — how “able” — they are. Such labels are alarmingly permanent.
Alfred Binet’s original
This from my personal experience: Just last year a 21-year old friend was finally given a means to communicate. Miraculously, he went from “a mental age of 6-12 months” to being an A student in freshman college English.
Let us not forget that the intent, when he developed a test for Intelligence Quotient, was to identify specific areas of academic need so as to address them with good teaching. Today’s use of the test is not what he had in mind.
Clearly, an I.Q. test does not reflect “retardation” as much as it does society’s need to establish hierarchy and pretend to understand.
As for Daryl Atkins and the Supremes, while I do not believe there is such a thing as mental retardation, I know that people so labeled face significant prejudice in an ultra-competitive, image-conscious society. Even today the majority of children who test as “subnormal” are educated in segregated settings, denied the natural opportunities to learn alongside non-labeled classmates. Too often such students are ignored by teachers unless they develop the characteristics known as “learned helplessness” — dependency on, and a desire to please, whoever is in charge. Now picture someone with these characteristics being interrogated by the police or defending him- or herself in a court of law.
Many people who have learned to be helpless are railroaded—unfairly accused, tried, and convicted. This is one more manifestation of the injustice of labeling.
We must not allow our outrage to keep us from outing the true issues: the ultimate injustice of the death penalty and the unconscionable bigotry of labeling our fellow humans as defective, as if they were auto parts being recalled to the factory.
A truly just society would not execute any of its members. But as much as it pains me, I cannot call to exempt people with the label of mental retardation from this ultimate injustice. Either we believe people are valued and valuable as they are or we don’t.
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