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Muhammad and the ‘closure’ myth

November 10, 2009

Of all the arguments in support of capital punishment, perhaps the most
emotionally compelling is that it provides “closure” for the loved ones
of murder victims. Prosecuting attorneys, politicians and journalists
commonly refer to how executions allow family members to “move on” from
their pain, providing a sense of relief at knowing that “justice” was
finally served.

With the Supreme Court’s denial
Monday of his request for a stay, “Beltway sniper” John Allen Muhammad
is scheduled to be executed at 9 p.m. Tuesday. Muhammad was the leader
of the October 2002 sniper shootings in which 16 Washington-area
residents were shot, and 10 killed. Among those likely to attend his
execution is Marion Lewis,
an Idaho resident whose 25-year-old daughter, Lori Lewis Rivera, was
fatally shot while vacuuming her minivan at a Kensington gas station.
Lewis recently contacted producers of the television news magazine
“Inside Edition” to ask if they would fly him to Virginia to witness
Muhammad’s execution; in exchange, he is to do two interviews, one
before Muhammad’s death and one after.

“There has never been any question about watching that animal die,”
Lewis told reporters after it was announced that “Inside Edition” would
indeed foot the bill for his trip. But the real question seems to be:
Will watching his daughter’s killer die help Lewis, or any of the other
victims’ relatives who plan to attend the execution, move on with their

Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel believes that the
theory that executions provide closure is “naive, unfounded,
pop-psychology.” Contrary to expectations, Spiegel says, witnessing
executions not only fails to provide closure but also often causes
symptoms of acute stress. “Witnessing trauma,” he says, “is not far
removed from experiencing it.”

Spiegel has concluded that “true closure is achieved only through
extensive grief work.” This process requires families to acknowledge
and bear their loss as well as to put it into perspective. It
necessitates a network of support systems: counselors who will sit
with, listen to and work with survivors; work environments flexible
enough to accommodate counseling sessions and the down time that is a
natural result of grief and stress; and victim assistance programs that
make sure those things happen.

Read the whole column.


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