Veterans, Death Penalty, and American Sniper

A month ago, Georgia executed a Vietnam veteran as punishment for a 1998 slaying of a Sheriff’s Deputy. The murder was pretty horrific. The veteran, Andrew Brannan, was pulled over during a routine traffic stop by 22-year-old Laurens County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Dinkheller. Mr. Brannan pulled a gun out of his car and opened fire on Deputy Dinkheller, shooting him nine times. Everything was caught on the officer’s dash cam. Andrew Brannan claimed his PTSD made him temporarily lose control of the situation and, apparently, his mind. The justice system did not agree and they executed him on January 13th.

Could there be a story that hits on more relevant social topics than this? With American Sniper, NYPD’s slowdown, and the coming of whatever war-type-obligation we are entering with ISIL, we have a story that combines three of American’s favorite topics: veterans, cops, and war (and a sprinkling of the prison industrial complex for fun).

All that and nobody is really talking about it.

Why?

When American Sniper came out, every conservative politician and media personality came out to herald it as the most patriotic film, the most divisive film, and the most telling of our nature as Americans and as warriors. Liberal media freaked out, trashing the movie and holding it to Hollywood’s most elusive standard: honesty. Rush Limbaugh said the film showed liberals where the rest of country was at. Kid Rock responded to a joke tweet made by Seth Rogan (in which he mentioned the film, but did not criticize it) by saying that he was probably molested by his uncle. I think Kid Rock thought this was the most patriotic response which solidifies what I’ve always known – Kid Rock is the result of a contract made years ago, forged in the pit of hell, between satan and a rodent. Sarah Palin took a picture with a sign threatening Michael Moore’s life because he spoke about his opinions on snipers, unrelated to the film. (I should make it clear how much I love Michael Moore and everything he does. I’m serious. Step the fuck off him, guys. I see you, Palin.) Vulture said the movie is “not the war movie we need.” Whether or not this is the case, there are a LOT of war movies we need out there and they can be in the documentary section on Netflix. Fox News debated heroes and “real” America. Bill Maher told everyone that Chris Kyle was a pyschopath.

As a side note, is everyone fucking insane?

I stayed away from talking about American Sniper because I think we’ve all had enough (And besides, we have Fifty Shades of Grey to talk about here. Did you see it? Did you love it? Did you go buy yourself a whip? …Have you really never tried a whip before?)

But I think it’s at least important to touch upon the reaction American Sniper got in conjunction with our twisted views on the death penalty in this country as it relates to veterans. (The views on the death penalty in this country in general are twisted also, and I’m going to try to stay off my soap box and on topic.)

I mean, it’s a little ironic, isn’t it? Everyone is talking heroism, PTSD, veteran’s issues, and Chris Kyle’s untimely death… and the guy who allegedly killed him is also a veteran suffering from PTSD. I’m not sure if the death penalty will be sought in his case, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. In fact, Eddie Ray Routh’s trial is happening right now, in the town that Chris Kyle is from in the heart of Texas, where they now have a Chris Kyle Day. I’m sure an unbiased jury and straightforward media are going to be the standard for this trial. That or, as I watched on Fox News today, Routh will be called a psychopath. (I notice people are using that word a lot and, as someone who enjoys diagnosing people I have never met with various personality disorders, I applaud you.)

None of this rhetoric is new, of course. Thanks to our divisive media, we are crazy when it comes to war and our troops. Remember when we went into Iraq in 2003? Yellow ribbons were everywhere. I was told that because I didn’t support the war, I was not supporting the troops OR Jesus and I was fourteen. Who tells a fourteen-year-old that they aren’t godly enough because like peace? (Answer: another fourteen-year-old with crazy parents.)

But we can’t always fall back on this “support your troops” bullshit when we kill them over and over and over again. We send them to war where they die. (Of course, this might sit better with me if were liberating ourselves or someone else, but I’ve never lived through a war where that was the point or the outcome.) If they happen to come back, they suffer from a modicum of abuses; lack of mental health services, housing, employment, healthcare, and sufficient case management through the backlogged VA. Keep in mind, we are the cause of these problems. We consistently vote in idiots who scream WE LOVE OUR TROOPS MORE THAN YOU and then, without fucking fail, do not pass any bill that offers them services. AND THEN we are simply shocked when their actual, real life, mental health problems result in some twisted act of violence that may or may not kill someone else. AND THEN WE KILL THEM. THROUGH THE JUSTICE SYSTEM. THE GOVERNMENT KILLS THEM.

Am I on drugs? I think I’m on drugs. I can’t be the only one who finds this crazy and ironic and sad.

I should stop. I clearly hate the death penalty in general. Even for non-veterans. I feel like I could go off an a diatribe about how killing is inhumane even when it’s government sponsored and that we routinely forgo our own laws in order to kill people we think “deserve” it. (Looking at you Texas. You ignored the 8th Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) requiring death row inmates to have an IQ above 70 – the clinical diagnostic for mental retardation – and executed a man in 2012 with an IQ of 61 because you believed he had a higher IQ.) I went on my soap box, didn’t I?

I’m not saying that veterans should somehow be exempt from the death penalty because of their service to the community. I believe that veterans definitely have the ability to murder people (I think that’s what they are trained to do, in some cases) and to have an exemption for them is unfair. Much like our need to prosecute police officers who murder black kids in the street, veterans who shoot people should see justice.

But killing them? A lot of people say that the death penalty is a deterrent to criminals who would otherwise murder people. Wait a second… What you’re saying is that without the threat of the death penalty, more people would kill people??? That does not make me fear “criminals,” it makes me fear you.

It also makes me think you’re stupid.

The problem is that we are really supportive of our troops until they reveal themselves to be broken. Chris Kyle did a really good job of keeping himself heroic. He wrote a book. He worked hard to help other veterans. He returned to his family. He also seems to have been at least a little racist and maybe not entirely truthful, but he was a good veteran. He continued to work for us. He painted a really good picture for, at the very least, a small town in Texas with that age old “god-loves-war-and-america” complex. But his alleged killer did not work for us as well. And Andrew Brannan did not work for us.

We are either wholeheartedly for something or wholeheartedly for its destruction. There are no (fifty shades of) grey areas for us to work with. (I know… I hate me for doing that, too.)

It’s tricky. They killed people and that’s terrible, and tragic, and wrong. And I’m not trying to diminish their crimes, the feelings of the victim’s families, or the country’s feelings about right and wrong. I’m just saying it’s terrible and tragic and we have a role in that. We are allowing tragedy to continue. We have media and politicians saying one person is a hero and another is a psychopath and they suffered from the same things. We view mental health still as a choice in this country and, while I can’t give a reason why, people don’t respond to the same mental illnesses in the same way. People just don’t. There are so many factors. The justice system is black and white and right and wrong and the real world just isn’t.

I just can’t get on board with killing a veteran with mental health problems and not having a discussion about it.

Jerry Kilgore for USA Today was quoted in 2002 as saying, “attacks on the process are not arguments that address the merits of whether the death penalty is a legitimate form of punishment.”

I disagree. I want to know how we got here. The process is the whole point. Because it doesn’t make any sense.

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