Please tell me.

A man saw a child in the street and decided he had the right to do what he wanted with her.  He recruited accomplices, plotted and carried out a plan to rape her, to kill her family, to set her on fire to destroy the evidence of his crime.

If you were on a jury in a state that allowed the death penalty, if the dealth penalty was on the table as a possible sentence, would you think this man’s crime warranted that maximum punishment?

If you are me, you say ‘yes.’  I am not a supporter of the death penalty.  I am happy enough to live in a state that hasn’t had an execution in almost my entire lifetime.  But in a case like this one, there is no question which side I fall on.  Clearly, when it suits me, the dealth penalty is just fine.  I can’t claim that makes sense, but I don’t question my feelings, either.  The idea of prison as rehabilitation, as paying a debt to society, holds no water for me here.  There is nothing this man could do that could ever repay this particular debt.  A fourteen year old girl and her family are dead because a violent predator felt he had the right to make that so.  A life sentence equals a slap on the wrist in my mind.

How little are the lives of women worth?  And how much less the lives of girls?  And still how very much less when those women and girls are ‘other,’ come from some unknowably foreign place that we feel ‘owes’ us something?

Because Steven Dale Green isn’t some random sociopath.  At the time of his crime, he was Private First Class Green of the United States Army.  And Abeer Qassim al-Janabi wasn’t the blond and blue-eyed girl next door whose smiling school photo would have been flashed at us again and again as Nancy Grace stirred our justifiable outrage to an impotent frenzy, she was a child living near Mahmoudiya in Iraq.  And Pfc Green decided she was his for the taking.  Spoils of war.  Not worthy enough to be spared his anger and aggression, to be separated from the vague mass of ‘Vulnerable Other’ that surrounded Green as he drove through Mahmoudiya.  No more significant than the dust and sand blowing across his windshield.

I asked how you would vote on Green’s jury.  By now you know that the members of that actual jury decided that life imprisonment was the better way to go.  According to reports, they couldn’t determine whether the crime was sufficient to give him a death sentence.

Couldn’t decide if the crime was sufficient to give him a death sentence.

Couldn’t decide if the crime was sufficient to give him a death sentence.

Tell me again about the value of women’s lives.  Tell me.  The other men involved received between 5 years (he ‘just’ held Abeer down while another man raped her) and 100 years.  The just-holding-her-down man could be released before serving a full three years.  And even the 100 years man will eventually be able seek parole.

Tell me that if Abeer had been that blond and blue-eyed girl next door and Steven Green had been a black man that the jury would have worried about whether his crime was enough to justify the death penalty.  Please tell me.

Tell me again about the value of women’s lives, about the worthiness of women in far-off, foreign places ‘where everyone hates us anyway’ (as I heard a man say on the subway).  Please tell me.  Tell me how sending any of these men to jail does anything for me, for you, for Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, for her parents, for her six-year-old sister, each of whom were shot to death by Green.  Please tell me.

I will say again that I am not a proponent of capital punishment.  But in this moment, I am all about ‘an eye for an eye,’ wishing only that  Green and the men who joined him that afternoon could suffer the same terror, pain and death they visited on that family.  Maybe this makes me a bad person, an uncharitable person.  Maybe.  I will take bad and uncharitable any day over being the kind of person who counts the lives of four innocent people so cheaply.

Instead of having any feelings about Abeer and her family, I am supposed to feel compassion for Green, for the stress of his combat placement and the fact that he’d been neglected as a child.  This sounds like another one of those ‘what you are versus what you did’ conversations.  Yeah, he had a lot of stress.  So does every other soldier in Iraq.  So does every other soldier posted in the area known as the “Triangle of Death,” the chief stressor, Green’s lawyer’s claim, causing his killing rage.   And he had a rough childhood.  Of course.  Stress and neglect.  With those justifications, we could erase the the guilty verdicts of at least three-quarters of the nation’s prison population, yet those are the reasons the jury was unable to determine that Green’s crime warranted the death penalty.

I don’t imagine that life in prison is in any way easy or fun.  Of course not.  But, as his brother said after the verdict was delivered, Green will have a chance for some kind of life.  That’s more than he was willing to give Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and her family.

Tell me how this is justice.  Please tell me.

14 thoughts on “Please tell me.

  1. I agree with the general thrust of your post. You make a compelling case, using logic and sense, for the death penalty for Green. But then you abandon logic and sense to say that you don’t support the death penalty. (Apparently logic and sense, sort of like the death penalty, are just fine… when they suit you?)

    And again, agreeing with your post as a whole, I wouldn’t cast the issue in terms of the lives of women and girls. A man was murdered too. I don’t think that if Green had murdered a boy and his brothers and father the outcome would have been at all different. It’s not a matter of the devaluation of a woman’s life. It’s the devaluation of a human life. The case, in the jury’s mind, boiled down to the the victims as foreigners and the murderer as one of our overstressed military boys. This has always been the case. Remember My Lai? Whether the victim is a man, woman, or a child, as long as he or she is in a distant land and the criminal is a member of our armed forces, our justice system(s) will never make the punishment fit the crime.


    1. Thank you for stopping by, JB. I read your post about the verdict, and I agree with what you’ve written. You’re right: as I say in my post, the death penalty is fine with me … when it suits me. And you’re right when you say that’s illogical, that it doesn’t make sense. Of course it doesn’t. And, as Fox says, that’s precisely the reason I can’t support capital punishment. It’s far too subjective, seemingly always affected by factors that have less to do with the crime than with the criminal and the jury. Way too much grey area.

      Green’s crime was driven by his obvious belief in the inferiority of women, in women as commodities that he could use and dispose as he chose. If the al-Janabi family had been all men, Green would never have attacked them, the other men who joined him would never have been convinced to go along. The attack happened because Abeer was a young girl. The attack happened because our world has allowed us to grow up believing that women are inherently worth less than men, that men’s needs — to express violence, rage, power, domination — are more important than a woman’s right to continue living.

      I agree that the jury was, surely, moved by the fact that Green is ‘one of our boys,’ an American soldier. But if we took the time to look at the verdicts in every case when a white man has raped a non-white woman … and then look at the verdicts in cases of black men who have raped a white woman … I think we’d see that Green’s verdict isn’t so unusal after all. Yet another reason that I can’t support the death penalty.


  2. The conclusion I draw from this is the super-valuation of white life. Because you only have to change one factor in this, Green’s race, and you have a completely different outcome. If Green had been an African American soldier, he would already be on the way to the gas chamber. The victims could have been Ethiopian, Japanese, Icelandic or Iraqi, it wouldn’t matter. Yes, it helped that they were Iraqi so the jury could justify their decision in their heads even more. But if he hadn’t been Caucasian they wouldn’t have felt the need to justify anything.

    @jb: First, you’re comparing apples and oranges. The soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre were tried by the military who were still intent on covering up the crimes to save face. Green was tried in a civilian court with a jury of his “peers.” Second, part of what often makes prosecutors seek the death penalty is when there are two heinous offenses, a rape and murder. So trying to make the argument that substituting a boy and his all male family would have resulted in the same verdict is specious, to say the least. (Plus, if you did substitute a boy and he had raped him, I would bet good money that he would have gotten the death penalty because the jury would have only seen him as a gay pervert.)

    Third, it’s exactly because he wasn’t given the death penalty after raping a teenager and murdering four people that I’m against the death penalty because it isn’t sentenced in any way even vaguely resembling fairness. No one will convince me that if the soldier on trial had had brown skin that he would be on death row this very minute. That’s why the death penalty is wrong. Because it is meted out against people of color far more often than white people.


  3. molly

    Well done.
    I am against the death penalty, since you ask me to tell you.
    You are right about the race issues. You are also right about the sex issues.
    Thank you for this post.


    1. Thanks, Molly. Thinking about this verdict is one of the first times in a very long time that I’ve articulated for myself what I think about the death penalty. I’ve always been against it … but I’ve also always had this dichotomy: I’m against it but there are times when I’m for it, when I think it’s warranted. Thinking about that and having to write it out really brought me to the same conclusion Fox articulates in her comment: verdicts like this and my ambivalence are exactly the reason there should be no capital punishment.


  4. I’m actually relieved to know there are other women out there who think about violence in this complex way…I often stumble in class on this issue, b/c I’m not a pacifist, yet generally don’t support our country’s military initiatives overseas. But when I watched The Devil Came on Horseback, I wished I personally could have handed that ex-Marine a gun. He was investigating the rape and murder of women in Darfur, and he only had a camera when he came upon the charred corpses of two little girls who had been chained together and set on fire. So I don’t support military aggression, but someone PLEASE give that ex-Marine a gun? Lately I’ve slipped into a different fantasy…where I become a mutant a la X-Men, and transform into “Blink,” short for Annihilator Blink Woman. I tried writing a poem about my inconsistent stance on violence: I want violence against women and children to end, but know genocide against men isn’t the answer, and selective assassination doesn’t work unless you yourself are willing to pull the trigger. And I’m not. So does that mean I’m not a “real” revolutionary? As Blink I simply look at a rapist, blink, and POOF—just like in Lynn Nottage’s play–the abuser turns to ash. It’s instant, painless, DONE. I can’t tell you how demoralized I’ve been lately…and then someone like the above commenter will say, “It’s not about gender.” And I want to scream or crawl deep into my hole in the ground. How can people still think that way in the 21st century? Watch the nightly news–EVERY night a woman is killed or assaulted by a man. One she knows, most of the time. A man she loves…and the cases that MAKE the news are just a fraction of the cases happening worldwide. I want it to stop, and I don’t know how to make it happen, but the “blink” fantasy helps some day…


  5. Hmm … Blink, eh? Couldn’t Annihilator Blink Woman be one of the Wonder Twins? That way, I could be ABW, too. Hey, that acronym is great because it also stands for Angry Black Woman. Perfect.

    (I think I may be more violent in my revolutionary fantasies than you. Blink is fairly merciful. I actually would like to see men suffer the things they make their female victims suffer. Way more Old Testament, me. But still, I’m obviously not prepared to inflict the violence myself, so my killing rage is wholly impotent.)

    Don’t crawl into that hole. Yes, there are people who will say crimes like this aren’t about gender. But we need to be here to school them, help them see just how exactly it is absolutely about gender. We can’t change all the minds, but we could change some …

    As I said to Erika above, I wasn’t sure about posting this because I’m so conflicted and because it’s in such complete opposition to my personal and political stance on capital punishment … except that it’s not. I decided to take the chance and see how/if people responded. I’ve lost readers before when I’ve given free reign to my anger over injustice. So be it. I can’t be all memes and Memoir Mondays.


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