Last Thursday morning, about 12 hours after our country executed a man amid overwhelming public opposition and apparent reasonable doubt, life went on. For me and most people who didn’t know Troy Davis, nothing is immediately different. Buses are running. Classes are in session. Everything is comfortable. In a sense, this is reassuring — we are resilient enough to continue our lives in the wake of tragedy. But this reassurance is easily misplaced. Our current comfort is not a testament to our resilience; it’s a sign of our collective apathy.
Rather than feeling reassured, we as a nation should feel poignant anxiety. Why are we, as Americans, so comfortable with an act that most of the Western world has long considered to be barbaric and unfair? It’s darkly ironic that our nation, the one that proudly sings “the land of the free and the home of the brave” at various sporting events every day, remains legislatively silent — and in the eyes of the world, cowardly — on this topic. A young generation of our European counterparts watched in disbelief last Wednesday night as an international media storm opened their eyes, maybe for the first time, to how different our country’s perception of justice really is.
As an American, I find myself ashamed that it took an international media storm to get my attention. Young people in France have an excuse for not previously worrying about the status of capital punishment in America — they have their own national problems to worry about. But what’s my excuse? Why have I been so comfortable with the thousands of executions that have occurred in the United States during my lifetime? I can’t justify my comfort.
The Troy Davis case illuminated the awful practice of allowing a man to anticipate the final moments of his life, all while being kept in isolation. This alone apparently didn’t satisfy our sadistic cravings enough. We had to, not once, but twice allow him to literally approach his final moments before granting him a temporary stay of execution. Even defendants of the death penalty surely don’t support this kind of psychological cruelty. But our nation, which is necessarily more than just the sum of its parts, does.
There’s one way to ensure that national policy lines up with the individual intuitions of those who care to pay attention: We must demand change. In order to get to a place where this kind of demand is influential though, a significant number of us have to focus our efforts on the things that actually matter. Here at the University, we proclaim ourselves to be “the Leaders and Best.” Yet, in a moment when protests were forming in France, Chile, Hong Kong, Great Britain, Peru, Norway and other countries, the most common topic on students’ Facebook pages was … Facebook. People were mad! There was fury over a Facebook redesign, and people demanded justice from the system. Things had to change.
In a twisted way, this shows that young Americans are certainly capable of making their voices heard. I must highlight the “twisted” aspect, though. In this case, people were mad mostly because Facebook implemented changes that required adjustment and made it more difficult to mindlessly browse. (Because of this, there’s an uproar after every redesign). We were mad that we had to think — a little — in order to use Facebook. Capital punishment is a different situation. In order to become upset at all, people have to think about why they believe what they believe.
Signs of reaction are present. Protests have occurred in the past few days at the center of campus in Ann Arbor. Surely, similar protests have occurred on campuses across the country. In order to have a significant impact, however, the masses of youth must get involved. I’m not entirely cynical about our long-term chances. I thoroughly believe if every young American took 20 minutes to open their eyes to the reality of capital punishment and form a personal (not inherited) belief, we possess the ambition and the ability to create significant change. I’m confident that, like young generations before us, we will be the ones to enact change in America. I’m confident that it’s not a question of if but of when. The question, however, still remains: When will we shake ourselves from our nearly sedated state of comfort and actually think?
Jeff Sorensen is an LSA senior.