I wrote this song after the execution of Robert Alton Harris, on April 21, 1992 — the first time that this had happened in California in about 25 years. Possibly because this one was closer to home, it affected me more than the executions in other states had, and I started trying to think of some aspect of it that I could write a song about. I chose to write about a coincidence that no one else had mentioned: the fact that this occurred just two days after Easter that year, the only holiday in our calendar which exists because of a state-sponsored execution. Having said this, I want to make it clear that I am certainly not comparing, or confusing, a man like Harris with one like Jesus. Instead, as the song makes clear, it is the similarities of those responsible for both deaths, and many others, that I find most striking, and made the main subject of the song.
Early morning, bright spring day, new life was in the air;
But once again, official death would own this day.
No two men could be less alike, but if you look around, you’ll see
That their killers have hardly changed in any way.
So one cheer for the ones who drive the nails, shoot the guns, shoot the gas;
Two cheers for the ones in power, who tell them to;
And three cheers for the rest of us, who blindly go along
In fear, rage, or silence, never knowing what we do.
“If you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me.”
It’s two thousand years, and we’re still killing Him;
But if we kill people, because they kill people,
Tell me: Why aren’t we just like them?
The first cheer’s for the technicians, the soldiers, and the guards;
All the hands that give the state the power to kill.
“Well, someone’s got to do it, it’s my orders, it’s my job;
And if I don’t do it, I ‘m sure the next guy will.”
But before you pound that nail in, drop that Zyklon, flip that switch,
Before you say, “One life or death, it’s all the same” —
It’s your hands the blood is on; what if you all should just say “No!”?
If they gave an execution, and no killers came?
The next cheer’s for the ones in power, the ones who make the rules;
All the governors, judges, Führers, and all the rest.
They tell us we need justice, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,
And that killing deters the other killers best.
See the judges, in their black robes, though they’re pushing hard for death,
Hide behind a mask of impartiality.
See the governor wash his hands before the crowd, and tell them all,
“Though I may give the orders, his blood is not on me.”
The third cheer’s for the rest of us, in whose name all this is done;
Without the people’s voice, the state would kill no one.
The Gallup poll at Calvary showed a large majority
There, as here, in favor of what the state had done.
We want justice, we want vengeance, we want someone to pay the price
For what we’ve lost, for what we feel, for what we fear.
But the killing hasn’t stopped the killing; can’t we find some other way?
Is death really a value for us to hold so dear?
As we gathered at the altars of our television sets,
To find out if he’d really died for us,
The high priests of our media assured us it was true,
That the sacrifice had been made without a fuss.
In the Name of the Father, the governor; and the Son, the executioner;
In the Name of the Spirit of the people of this state:
We baptize you into a state of death, we condemn you for all time;
We’ve become the god of vengeance, and of hate.
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