search

America’s Angel of Death: Sophie’s Choice 2.0

Mathew Reeves Learns His Execution is Imminent

Death Penalty Action hosts prayerful and informative Virtual Vigils starting an hour before scheduled executions to help shine a spotlight on the evils of the death penalty. During the vigil for #MatthewReeves on Jan 27, 2022, he called in. We were in community with him when he learned the US Supreme Court had overturned his stay and his execution was imminent.

Posted by Death Penalty Action on Sunday, January 30, 2022

Passover Reflections – The Angel of Death and Sophie’s choice 2:0

When asked about capital punishment, Holocaust Survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) famously said “Death is not the answer.” He also offered these words.

With preparations now under way across the Jewish world for Passover, which celebrates our people’s quintessential story of national redemption, we in America continue as a society to shut the ultimate door on personal redemption with the ongoing use of the death penalty. Here are some recent developments upon which to reflect this Pesach season, when rather than following our tradition’s imperative to “choose life,” (Deut. 30: 19) we instead are making others choose their preferred modes of how to answer the call of the American Angel of Death…

“Sophie’s Choice” is a 1982 film, adapted from William Styron‘s 1979 novel of the same name. It stars Meryl Streep as Zofia “Sophie” Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant who is haunted by an experience in which a Nazi officer told her she had a choice between which of her two children she wanted to be murdered. He said he could only spare one of them. 

I cannot help but recall this nightmare scenario when I contemplate the idea that my country is giving our citizens the choice of their preferred execution method. In one heinous example, we ask: “Would you like lethal injection, or the gas chamber?” If you are not as quick as I am to view this question as another sadistic kind of Sophie’s Choice, consider that BOTH of these means of killing indeed are legacies of the same Nazi regime that is depicted in the film. This is the same legacy that impacted the history of my own family, including my 101 year old grandmother, a survivor of the Holocaust, and that now casts a denomic pall over all our nation. It impacts the lives of many of the international members of our group “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” https://www.facebook.com/groups/996205437512710/?ref=share 

To illustrate the Nazi legacy for the most common form of execution here in the States – lethal injection – here is the script from the daily calls our group makes to pro-death governors across the country:

“Good morning, my name is _______ and I am calling with a respectful message for Gov. ____ on behalf of our group “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” We have over 1400 members internationally, including in your state. This is our daily call to beg for the lives of our pen pals ____, slated for state-sponsored murder in your state. We are against the death penalty in every case, for both the innocent and the guilty. Lethal injection, which your state uses for state killing, was first implemented by the Nazis to kill people deemed “unworthy of life” as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol, as devised by Dr. Carl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolf Hiter. Every use of the lethal injection carries on that Nazi legacy. We believe that you and your state of _____ are better than this. We commend your commitment to public safety – may it continue! And…may it be balanced by a commitment to the most fundamental human right of all – the right of life itself. As we say: “L’chaim! – To Life!” If you wish to discuss this respectfully, you can reach me at _____ God bless you and God bless the state of ____

We have used this script for our federal government and various states over the years. Currently, it is used for the following governors whose states have active execution warrants as of this writing: 

  1. Texas Governor Greg Abbott (512-463-2000)

Upcoming Execution Victims: (lethal injection)

  • Carl Buntion
  • Melissa Lucio – For her innocence claim, we also call DA Luis Saenz at (956) 544-0849 and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles at (512) 406-5852 and ask them respectfully to watch the film “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” Also: we email bpp_clemency@tdcj.texas.gov with title Melissa Lucio #07879006 For details, see the blog entry below and https://freemelissalucio.org and the blog entry here: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/texas-to-kill-innocent-woman-holocaust-meml-day/ 
  • Ramiro Gonzales
  • Kosoul Chanthakoummane

2. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee: 615-741-2001

Upcoming Execution Victims: (lethal injection or electric chair) 

  • Oscar Smith
  • Harold Nichols
  • Byron Black
  • Donald Middlebrooks
  • Gary Sutton

3. Missouri Governor Mike Parson 573-751-3222

Upcoming Execution Victim (lethal injection) 

  • Carman Deck

 

Most recently, we have had to add the following line to our list of calls:

4.  Arizona Governor Doug Ducey: (602) 542-4331

Upcoming execution victim: (lethal injection or gas chamber – Zyklon B)

  • Clarence Dixon

For this last call, we add the following lines:

“In the case of your state of Arizona, we have learned that you are giving a choice to the next in line for state killing: the option of either lethal injection, as described above, or the gas chamber, featuring Zyklon B. This is the same gas used in Auschwitz. It is yet another Nazi legacy that cannot be allowed to continue on these shores. It is for this very reason that the Jewish community of Arizona has joined a lawsuit to block the use of this gas in executions.” 

When I have shared this most recent development about Zyklon B with others on social media, many are so aghast that they cry out “fake news.”  Here, then, are some links to help prove the reality of this news:

– https://worldisraelnews.com/jewish-community-sues-us-state-to-prohibit-using-zyklon-b-gas-for-executions/

– https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-breaking/2022/04/05/clarence-dixon-execution-deana-bowden-asu-student-death/9477766002/?fbclid=IwAR1250-LeyZ4XHGL5CxCsdWn1ehdJEFaDtoPsZuRHIUxZ2Zk66siiw32-cc

 – https://www.courthousenews.com/jewish-community-group-seeks-to-stop-arizona-from-performing-cyanide-gas-executions/

https://www.courthousenews.com/jewish-community-group-sues-arizona-over-gas-executions/ 

From the final article listed above, which appeared on Feb. 15, 2022, we read that the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix is “‘asking a state court to declare executions by cyanide gas — the same gas used to murder people during the Holocaust — unconstitutional’ It goes on to say: ‘in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Maricopa County Superior Court, the plaintiffs say using cyanide in executions, as the state once did and plans to do again, would be insulting to the Jewish community in Arizona, which includes Holocaust survivors.’ ‘Approximately 80 Holocaust survivors currently call our state their home, and many of these survivors are horrified at being taxed to implement the same machinery of cruelty that was used to murder their loved ones,’ said Tim Eckstein, chairman of the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, in a statement. ‘It is appalling that Arizona has chosen to use the very same chemical compound that was used by the Nazis in Auschwitz to murder more than one million people.’’

Perhaps most poignantly, Darian Qureshi in an op ed for the Arizona Daily Star, wrote the following about this monstrous development in an article on March 31, 2022: 

“Echoing international sentiments, Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told The Guardian, ‘You have to wonder what Arizona was thinking in believing that in 2021 it is acceptable to execute people in a gas chamber with cyanide gas. Did they have anybody study the history of the Holocaust?’ It appears the answer to that question is ‘no.’ Arizona ranks third to last nationally in student education spending, and a recent survey found that 67% of millennial Arizonans do not know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust — two jarring facts that may be related. Instead of buying more Zyklon B for state executions, we should use those funds to educate students about the Holocaust. This would be a much better use of taxpayers’ dollars and stop Arizona from gaining global notoriety as the state that adopted Nazi methods of executing prisoners.” https://tucson.com/opinion/local/local-opinion-arizona-should-not-use-zyklon-b/article_604f2320-9a3e-11ec-8e56-dbbe53e21708.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=user-share&fbclid=IwAR3_QfChyyXshO0LNrg7fLlnlobYN_QQngOiFmucbAa-GDE6lSY0N9hJhG4 

And yet, despite this outcry, all of this became even more of a reality on April 5, 2022 when Arizona offered this “Sophie’s Choice” to Mr. Clarence Dixon, a blind and mentally ill man who now is being asked to choose by which of these two Nazi legacies he prefers to be killed: lethal injetion or the gas chamber.

https://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/ej-montini/2022/04/07/clarence-dixon-mentally-ill-arizona-death-row-inmate-execution/9493768002/?fbclid=IwAR0oPm8XoVSJsz_KmBm2Nt6USRH-P6tb1DkXkTwplTXk7n6Lvg2pDboLCUw 

As we approach Passover, I cannot help hear the chorus of “Dayeinu!” – it  would have been enough for us if it were only Arizona. When it comes to the gas chamber, however, other states including Alabama and Oklahoma also are planning to get involved. For more details on this development, note this petition for the Jewish community by Death Penalty Action: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/say-no-to-the-gas-chamber/?fbclid=IwAR02SYx8Qr6NupdCtGiym2-0dJ1uB5cX5Zv-ghr8bS-CEihM8a8OGY2EVzI

And again, “Dayeinu!” – it would be enough for us if this were extent of the horrific choices that our various departments of “correction” are giving to those who are in their care. Yet, there is more. South Carolina just recently has joined the federal government, Utah and others in adding the firing squad to the list of “choices.” (For those who might call this fake news, please see here: https://www.npr.org/2022/03/18/1087677686/south-carolina-firing-squad-execution-death-row) Indeed, EVEN AS I WRITE THIS ARTICLE, South Carolina has just now announced another state killing in which the execution victim will have the luxury of a choice between electric chair and firing squad.

(https://www.thestate.com/news/local/crime/article260221585.html)  And so, our list will again expand tomorrow to include the following:

5. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster (803) 734-2100

Upcoming execution victim: (electric chair or firing squad)

  • Richard Bernard Moore

And Dayeinu! – it would be enough for us if there were at least a reprieve in American  executions this Passover. Instead, we shall dip into our tears not once, but TWICE on the sixth day of Passover, April 21, when we will see TWO executions again in this country on the same day: Carl Buntion, a 78yo man in Texas who will be given the lethal injection protocol, and Oscar Smith, a 72yo man in Tennessee. On that night, in a warped addition to the traditional Four Questions that we ask during our Passover Seders, we shall ask Oscar yet another question: “what is your preferred choice of weapon for the Angel of Death: the needle, or the electric chair…?”

And, again, Dayeinu! – it would be enough for us if these were all the choices available for our citizens. Yet, still other states will even allow individuals to choose to be hanged. (Please see here for a comprehensive list: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions/methods-of-execution) Perhaps by the time I finish this article, we shall see more execution warrants from across this fine land, where my fellow abolitionists and I sing: “My country ‘tis of thee, land of death penalties, executions ring!”

Put simply: there is NO viable way – by definition – of executing a human being against their will! Period. Countless examples abound, but given the attention of late to the gas chamber, consider renowned death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean’s observations. In her book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, Prejean closes with an account of the death of Mr. David Lawson, who was executed in North Carolina for the awful murder of a man during a burglary. It took 13 minutes for Larson to die in the gas chamber. Choking and gasping, he refused to take the deep breaths that would have hastened his death. He “continued to take short breaths and despite paroxysms of choking cried out until his voice was but a whisper: ‘I … am … a human … being.” https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-2005-01-23-0501230483-story.html 

This call for HUMANITY is precisely why we stand with Elie Wiesel, who famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer.” He also invoked Malach Hamavet, the Angel of Death, demanding that we make it  pass over all human beings when it comes to state sponsored murder:

“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.” – Elie Wiesel

But wait: Dayeinu! – all of the above would be enough for us…and yet, what awaits us just after Pesach? An INNOCENT woman – Melissa Lucio – is scheduled to be put down via lethal injection by the state of Texas on the evening of April 27th, just as we begin to commemorate Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Memorial Day. In a poignant Tweet from Emily Haber, the German Ambassador to the US, drives home the implications of this horrible synchronicity. She writes “The abolition of the death penalty is a historic process. For Germany, it was one of the lessons of the Nazi dictator. Today. I join my EU colleagues in calling for clemency for #MelissaLucio in Texas.” 

The German ambassador to the US sees this, yet far too many Americans do not. How many more signs from the universe must we see  – how many more plagues and Death Angels must we endure – in order to break through the hardened hearts of our nation’s collective Pharoah-consciousness?

And so, here is the prayer I will be adding just after the final verse of Chad Gadya, with its hopeful image of God slaying  the Angel of Death that had passed over the houses of the people of Israel:

“May the outstretched arm of Spirit support us in our quest to banish the Angel of Death from our land, and from our world. May we see an end to the taking of life through murder and all forms of capital punishment. May we see restorative justice, compassion and lovingkindness replace the penalty of death. May healing of mind, body and spirit come for all impacted by violence. And may we always remember: “aza chamavet ahava” – “Love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs 8:6)

Amein…Selah.

Chaplain Michael Zoosman

Founder: “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty

https://www.facebook.com/groups/996205437512710/?ref=share 

Board Advisory Member, Death Penalty Action

http://deathpenaltyaction.org/jewish-action 

Note: For a sample of the sacred and essential work that Death Penalty Action (https://deathpenaltyaction.org) does to shine a light on the horror of the death penalty, please watch this featured video: https://www.facebook.com/deathpenaltyaction/videos/321665106564307/?extid=CL-UNK-UNK-UNK-IOS_GK0T-GK1C. This 5 minute video is worth your time. It illustrates our final interaction with our  pen pal Mr. Matthew Reeves, an intellectually disabled man who Alabama put to death on Jan. 27, 2022 – International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Our other pen pal also put to death on that same day by Oklahoma was Donald Grant, who lived with documented mental illness. Both were killed by the latest iteration of the Aktion T4 lethal injection protocol. The Angel of Death did NOT pass over

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an advisory board member at Death Penalty Action and is the 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.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments