Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Christianity vs. Monstrosity: My Take on Brian Nichols

EVERY MORNING SINCE HIS CAPTURE last Saturday, Brian Nichols' face has been plastered on the front page of the Atlanta news. And rightfully so, as he is now notorious, having carried out the bloodiest killing spree in the city since Mark Batton murdered 9 and injured 13 in the Buckhead daytrader shootings in 1999. In case you are unfamiliar with Brian Nichols' story, let me bring you up to speed.

Last Friday, Nichols, 33, was being retried for the rape and false imprisonment of his ex-fiancee in Fulton County Court. En route from detention to the courtroom, Nichols overpowered his escort, deputy Cynthia Hall, took her pistol, stormed into the courtrooom, murdered the judge, Rowland Barnes, a court reporter, Julie Ann Brandau, and a sheriff's deputy, Sergeant Hoyt Teasley. Then, he fled down several flights of stairs, into a parking garage and carjacked several different persons, including Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, Don O'Briant, whom he pistol-whipped across the face.

Nichols, 6'1", 200+ pounds and athletically-built, then fled on the subway to the Buckhead district where he mugged two tourists and, later that evening, fatally shot an off-duty federal agent, David Wilhelm. Nichols then stole Wilhelm's truck and sped to Duluth, a suburb about 30 miles northeast of downtown, where he held a 26 year-old woman, Ashley Smith, hostage in her apartment overnight.

On Saturday morning, Nichols released her unharmed. Shortly after, Smith called 911 to turn him in and Nichols walked into the morning waving a white rag, ending 24-hours of bloody violence with no contest.

It sounds like a made-for-TV movie, and it is all alleged, of course. But the court of public opinion has already handed down its verdict.


"Oh my God!"

"What a monster!"

I heard it before I saw it, sitting in my cubicle last Friday morning. And this is always how it happens. Usually, I ignore it.

When there's breaking news, the towncriers with TV's in their cubicles or video on their desktops disrupt the routine office frequencies of phones and faxes to alert the other villagers who are drinking coffee or IM-ing or playing Hearts or (heaven forbid) actually doing work.

This particular morning, I actually happened to be doing work. The technician on the other end of my phone in Kentucky said, "Thank God it's Friday... except down where you are in Atlanta."

"What do you mean by that?" I asked.

"The courthouse shootings?"


"Where you been? The prisoner who escaped and shot up the judge. It's all over the national news."

For once, maybe I should have listened to the town criers.

As I pulled up, I thought, What in the world could this guy have done to get on the national news? Then, I kept saying to myself

Not one of us... not one of us...

Not that it really mattered. Murder is terrible regardless of who pulls the trigger, but Black men have a bad enough rap already.

"When they catch him, they oughta kill him!" and "The death penalty, for sure!" and "What a monster!" I heard White voices say with vitriol all over the office.

And before his picture came up, I knew...


But what to do with Brian Nichols is not about race at all. It is about humanity.

First, I should say back up and say that I do not believe in the death penalty under any circumstances. Allow me to present a typical exchange when I encounter a death penalty advocate:

"You mean to tell me that if someone brutally murdered your mother and father that you wouldn't want them put to death?"


"Well, what if they raped your mother and your father before they murdered them."


"Well, what if they burned them alive before they murdered them?"

And the list of unimaginable tortures continues - unimaginable, that is, except in the mind of the death penalty advocate, whose mind is teeming with details of unthinkable acts. What kind of mind dwells on such things? What kind of heart? A savage one.

Which brings me to my point about the death penalty: It is savagery. A common argument for the death penalty comes from the Bible - more specifically, the Old Testament:

And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
- Exodus 21: 23-25 (KJV)

If one is to literally apply this logic to all crimes, then what is the punishment for Nichols' original charge of rape? Is he to be raped himself? If so, who will do the raping?

It is here that the logic becomes absurd because he who commits the raping of the rapist becomes a rapist himself. It follows that he who murderers a murder becomes...

Further, there are many laws of the Old Testament which no longer apply to society today. Furthermore, the Bible later says regarding the Old Testament laws:

We are delivered from the law, that being dead.
-Romans: 7:6

Which is to say that our Judeo-Christian society is not - in practice, nor in intention - solely based on the Old Testament. Many of the laws of the Old Testament including animal sacrifice (Exodus 12:1-7) and slavery (Exodus 21:2-11) do not apply to our society today. We have been delivered from this law.

But my point is not really about the Bible, nor is it to give a sermon. My point is really, again, about humanity. Now, one might believe Bible and humanity to be synonymous, but the public outcry against Brian Nichols has been anything but human.

Mind you, I do understand the need to heal and to understand, but executing Brian Nichols increases neither healing nor understanding. Modern courts of law are not in the business of ordering the gouging out of eyes or chopping off hands and neither should they be ordering the execution of bodies. Again, it is savagery.

True, what Brian Nichols did was brutal, but the real monster in this is not he, who snapped and commited murders under the pressures of being retried for rape. The real monster is the person who would sit in their 4-bedroom house with a car which cranks and a job which is secure and money in the bank - the true monster is the person living in the lap of luxury who would call for Brian Nichols' execution.

The most Christian behavior in all of this has been by the person who had the greatest right to be un-Christian and vindictive and savage and monstrous - his final captive, Ashley Smith. If anyone has a right to demand Nichols' death, it's her. But, she doesn't.

One may argue that Ashley Smith only did what she did and said what she said to survive - that perhaps she didn't really mean the kindness in her mouth. But who are we to question a real Christian's heart?

It was, in fact, Ashley Smith's kindness which saved her own life and saved the lives of others Nichols may have potentially killed if he continued to flee. But how Christian would it be for Ashley Smith to have treated Brian Nichols with humanity and to have not really meant it?

Not very Christian at all.

But in the greater scheme of things, this tragedy was about purpose. If one believes that God created us all - all with a unique, divine purpose to live - then one must believe that Brian Nichols' life serves some purpose. And I believe that it is God's - not man's - place to determine when that purpose is complete. If Brian Nichols is executed, then he becomes just another of many murderers who've been executed. Will this deter others from murdering?

Man has been murdering since Cain slew Abel - thousands of years ago.

But I digress. I do believe that Brian Nichols should be justly punished for his crimes, and I believe that just punishment is life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.

What good is that?, one might ask. A waste of tax dollars, one may say. But I believe that, should Brian Nichols' become reformed within prison, his testimony, as a living example to other prisoners to straighten up their lives while they still have a chance, is infinitely more powerful than his closed-mouth testimony in death.

When I look at Brian Nichols face on the frontpage each day, I look into a mirror.

I don't see a monster. I see my Self.


BLUE said...

after listening to an entire exchange on a listserv in which people were weighing in on whether Brian Nichols was a "freedom fighter" who deserved praise for finally taking a stand for black men imprisoned unjustly everywhere, i stepping in to say that this is the most sound take on the situation i've seen yet. i can't believe people have been comparing him to Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey ... anyone who took a position to defend the rights of blacks by fighting the system ... it's not the same kind of fight. and yet, like you, i still don't swallow the death penalty as an option. light! ~BLUE

junior said...

I will have to disagree with you on this one. Some crimes are so heinous that as a society we have to take the position that acts such as these cannot be tolerated. In order to preserve social order it must be shown that those who rob people of their ultimate right life, must themselves must be divested of that right. The exception being cases of self-defense (and I put abortion in that category) To make a long story short I fully believe in the retributive and deterrent force of the death penalty.

M. Ayodele Heath said...

To junior,

Couple of questions:

Is taking the 'right to life' exclusively equivalent to 'death'? Or can taking the 'right to life' also be equivalent to removal from society via actual life imprisonment?

Furthermore, who says that the death penalty is the ultimate deterrent force? How does it apply as a deterrent force to a criminal who actually desires to die? How does it apply to a martyr?

I'm open for dialogue.

iconpoet said...

Humanity is determined by the kindness we extend to those who do NOT deserve it. And I stand firmly by saying that you can NOT be anti abortion, anti euthanasia AND Pro death penalty. The sanctity of live extends to ALL.

junior said...


You are right in that the death penalty is not a perfect deterrent in that it assumes that we all act rational in regards to the protection of our own life, however I believe that it does act as a deterrent to most of us. Imagine how many "goin out in a blaze of glory" criminals would we have if there wasn't the prospect of being strapped onto old sparky.

But having lived in Europe for a short time to attend school, it is not lost on me that they have much fewer murders and violent crimes..without the deterrent force of the death penalty. So like Michael Moore in "Bowling for Columbine" we all have to ask ourselves, what is it in our American psyche that breeds such violence?

junior said...
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