Michael Zoosman

No Death Penalty for my Former Maryland Mayor – or Anyone else

A screenshot of a Tweet in response to the arrest of former College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn on charges of possession and distribution of child pornography. No copyright.

Recently, the mayor of my current hometown of College Park, MD, Patrick Wojhan, submitted his resignation ahead of his arrest on dozens of counts of possession and distribution of child pornography.  This is a consummate tragedy. I had met Mr. Wojahn briefly on a few occasions over the years since our family moved to College Park in 2015 – the same year he was first elected mayor. As a human being, let alone the father of two young children myself, I am shocked and dismayed at this awful development. I am pleased to learn that Mr. Wojahn is cooperating fully with investigation efforts. As he concluded his resignation letter, “I am stepping away to deal with my own mental health. I ask that you continue to keep me and my family in your prayers.” I have mailed a letter to Mr. Wojahn doing just this, and expressing the hope that he will be safe in the facility where he now finds himself for “correction.” As a former prison chaplain, I am keenly aware of the dangers he now faces from within that environment in light of his charges. I pray that restorative justice and healing of mind, body and spirit will guide his future path. 

In the wake of this horror, there is an equally sickening development: many citizens of our city, state and nation are responding to this horror with calls for Mr. Wojahn’s execution. A Tweet that exemplifies these awful statements simply offers this message: “Okay kill him.” Some may dismiss these calls as the views of a harmless minority who are offering knee-jerk reactions, or as something that was intended as some kind of sick joke. (Mercifully, there is currently no law in place that would allow for Mr. Wojahn’s execution.) And yet, with the trajectory of laws in this country that seek to expand the death penalty for such “crimes” as abortion, I submit that there is every valid reason for concern over comments such as these, which seem increasingly rampant in the wake of any number of crimes. A statement such as this tweet – however immature in its formation  – that references the human rights abomination of state-sponsored murder is yet another example of how when we give our government the power to kill its prisoners, we open a Pandora’s Box to state killings that endangers us all. We cannot ignore these violent reactions, lest we risk allowing them to fester, and foster notions of lethal barbarism and vengeance. Rather, we must shine a light on them in order to cast out their intentions of regressing our civilization to a moral Dark Ages. 

To contrast this American lust for violence, killing and vengeance, juxtapose these calls for state murder with the following powerful recollections of Mr. Paul Goldstein about his observances of the response in his home of Norway during the horrific mass murder carried out by Anders Behring Breivik on 22 July, 2011: 

“In 2000 I moved from Massachusetts to Norway, from a state without a death penalty to a whole nation without one. Both had their final executions around the same time, in the late 1940’s. Norway is a very peaceful country, and the number of annual murders is often down in the single digits. But there was one very tragic mass murder in 2011, the only example of a mass murder in Norway in the last 78 years (using the U.S. definition – four or more dead, not counting the shooter). On that terrible day (July 22, 2011), one deranged man killed 8 by a bomb, and then 69 more with a mass shooting, before he was captured. But what really amazed me was how Norwegians reacted, and how they didn’t react. There were NO public calls to reinstate the death penalty in Norway – NONE as far as I know, and I was in the country at the time absorbing all the related news for months. (Understandably, it dominated national news for months; Norwegians had never experienced anything like that before in the postwar era, or since.) Instead Norwegians took to the streets by the thousands – not to call for revenge, but to re-express their commitment to love and peace, to make sure that the country would not change its basic character following that terrible tragic day. They brought roses into the streets, with speaker after speaker re-expressing the basic Norwegian philosophy. They read poems and sang songs of love and peace. And they even expressed sympathy for the killer’s parents, who were as shocked as anyone else at what their son did. The killer received the maximum prison sentence possible in Norway (21 years, but with an option to increase this sentence by intervals – possibly to life – if he is still deemed a danger to society). Yet as far as I know, no one in Norway – at least publicly – has expressed the wish that he be executed, or that the death penalty be brought back as a deterrent. The killer is hated by many, but Norway treats him humanely and admirably. Norway faced the extreme test, and came out shining, with all their long-established principles fully intact.

I humbly submit that when we call for the death penalty for former Mayor Patrick Wojahn, or for anyone else, we continue to demonstrate how we here in the USA are miserably failing our version of this test of our national moral character as a so-called “civilized” country.

I am an ordained Jewish clergyperson and the co-founder of “L’chaim! [“To Life”] Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Our group includes Mr. Paul Goldstein above and thousands of other members worldwide who stand with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Martin Buber (who with other Jewish human rights luminaires opposed the execution of Adolph Eichmann), and countless other Jewish leaders against the state-sponsored murder of any prisoners against their will. We echo Wiesel’s famous response to the question of capital punishment, stating that “death is not the answer” and offering this retort, which is our anthem in L’chaim:

“With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory. I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.” 

A Holocaust survivor like Weisel making such a powerful assertion becomes even more meaningful when one considers just how capital punishment is carried out here in the USA. Namely, 1) gas chambers continue to be built across this nation, 2) the poison gas Zyklon B itself – of Auschwitz infamy – is used in one of them, and 3) the most common form of execution that we see in America – lethal injection – is in fact a Nazi legacy, first implemented in our world as part of the Third Reich’s Aktion T4 protocol, as devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler. Many of us in L’chaim, like myself, are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors. We know very well that the death penalty and the Shoah/Holocaust are not the same. And yet, we also know that “Never Again” must have meaning in our world, lest we allow history the possibility of repeating itself. 

While rabbinic Judaism has effectively legislated away capital punishment in Jewish law, lawmakers with growing popular support seek to expand the use of state-sponsored murder of prisoners as they pursue a dystopian nightmare that finds its parallel only in the “salvaging” state murders of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” 

And this is not all. Various states’ attempts to regress to the use of  firing squads and electrocution to kill prisoners is equally reprehensible. There is no viable way – quite literally – of executing someone against their will. Legislators’ expansive notions about “kosher” forms of state murder call to mind a Tennessee legislator’s recent advocacy for a return to “hanging by a tree” as an execution method. His comment was a direct reminder of the lynching legacy that is the death penalty, which is proven to be blatantly racist in its application. As we saw most recently in the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, it is much less likely that one who is white and wealthy will qualify for a penalty of death. 

Those who erroneously believe that the threat of capital punishment will deter anyone from doing anything would do well to read the many objective meta-studies that demonstrate that such deterrence is a fallacy. This fantasy is matched in its ludicrousness only by the insanity of some lawmakers who claim they are “pro-life” while they shamelessly shake hands with the proverbial Angel of Death.  

Let there be no doubt: when it comes to the death penalty, our thousands of members across the world echo Elie Wiesel and others when we fervently chant, without exception: 

“L’chaim – to Life!”

Cantor Michael Zoosman, MSM,

Board Certified Chaplain, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Board Member, Death Penalty Action

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (CASC) and received his cantorial ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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