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(DV) Kurth: Culture of Death







Culture of Death
by Peter Kurth
July 20, 2005

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Now that a jury of what I can only imagine to be his peers -- a jury composed of fine, upstanding Vermonters -- has sentenced convicted murderer Donald Fell to death for the 2000 slaying of “North Clarendon grandmother Terry King,” I think it’s time to take a closer look at this “culture of life” everyone keeps talking about.

By “everyone,” I mean the righteous, the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” people. Mainly, these are “fundamentalist” Christians, who believe -- no matter which “testament” it comes from and no matter when, where or by whom the texts were translated -- that the published Bible is the "literal" word of God. You can’t argue with people like that and I don’t see why anyone would try. It is their job not to think. They most certainly should never be allowed on juries.

Of course the spirit of vengeance -- the eye for an eye -- knows no creed, denomination or nationality. It is the law of the ape. It includes whacked-out Muslims, who think that blowing up buses and skyscrapers is the right response to Western policy in the Middle East. It includes Jewish settlers in Palestine, who refuse to give up “their” property on the grounds that there is such a thing as “Greater Israel” (a biblical idea). It includes Native Americans, African Americans, gay Americans -- all Americans who think that a terrible wrong has not been made right. It also includes George W. Bush, who stole the term “culture of life” from the late pope, John Paul II, and now uses it for political purposes.

Hush your letters of protest -- I don’t want to hear them! Was it not Bush, during the Terri Schiavo spectacle, who urged us to “foster a culture of life,” to “build a culture of life” and to “err,” if necessary, on a “presumption in favor of life”?

It was. We all know he was lying -- ask anyone in Iraq. Bush doesn’t give a damn about “life” if it gets in the way of money and oil, whereas I think the Pope, somewhere among those robes, crowns and jewels, actually did.

A little history: It was in 1993, in a speech in Denver, Colorado, that the now-to-be-canonized John Paul II told a throng of nearly a million people that every human life was worth the same as any other, and fully as much, and that there was no exception to this rule. No exception. I guess the phrase “beyond redemption” didn’t enter his head, and that he was also familiar with the wisdom of Solomon, which treats cases that can’t be resolved in earthly terms by cutting the baby in half. Normally, I wouldn’t drag myself for candy to defend the Catholic Church, but in this case I can’t help myself.

“In our present social context,” John Paul declared in Denver, “marked by a dramatic struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death, there is need to develop a deep critical sense capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.”

Note that, please: A deep critical sense. It might be argued -- it has been argued -- that the vicious murder of Terry King supersedes all other values and needs. But in Denver the Pope wasn’t talking just about “hot-button” issues -- abortion, euthanasia, cloning, etc. -- but specifically, also, about war and capital punishment, which he fully and completely and forever condemned. The death penalty, he said, was justified only “in cases of absolute necessity … when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” This is not the case with Donald Fell, already locked up in perpetuity, however painful that fact might be for the Kings.

For the record: The death penalty in Vermont was “discarded” in 1965, and eliminated altogether in 1987. Terry King herself was murdered in New York State, and the only way they could try Fell in Burlington (where the crime was not committed), and later determine to kill him in turn (though he will not be executed here), was through some technical shenanigan of federal law -- “crossing state lines,” I believe, about which the Bible has nothing to say. “Caesar and God,” maybe, but that’s as far as it goes.

Neither Caesar nor God made the laws of Vermont, and neither will bring Terry King back to her grieving family. Neither will the willful murder of Donald Fell. The jurors who have perpetrated the outrage of this death sentence, who have offended the living ethic of this state, and who have extended the suffering of the King family by many decades -- Fell will be alive for a long time, and will “cost more” on appeal than he ever could as a locked-up prisoner -- should indeed “go back to their lives,” as it was put last week by the local daily: “Some of them to haggard apartments,” some to “luxury homes at the end of dirt roads with mountaintop views,” some “to cozy, side-street Dutch Colonials and large wood-framed homes on bustling main roads,” and some “all the way back to the Northeast Kingdom.” As if that were China, which, right now, it might as well be.

When they do go back, the jurors in this case should hang their heads in shame. No “emotional testimony,” no consideration of the “barbaric” details of Terry King’s death -- as opposed to whose 28 children blown up on Sunday in Iraq? -- can excuse this violation of the wisdom and good nature of the people of Vermont, who, long ago, abolished the death penalty, as did every civilized society on earth.

Peter Kurth is the author of international bestselling books including: Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, Isadora: A Sensational Life, and a biography of the anti-fascist journalist Dorothy Thompson, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. His essays have appeared in Salon, Vanity Fair, New York Times Book Review, and many others. Peter lives in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at: Visit his website at:

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