Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Death to All Capital Punishment Proponents

Sweeping declarations typically get people into trouble, but I've never known anyone who opposed capital punishment for exactly the same reasons I do. This probably makes me crazy; I'm comfortable with that.

Twenty years ago, during a televised presidential debate, Bernard Shaw asked Massachussetts Governor and White House hopeful Michael Dukakis if he would want the death penalty imposed on the hypothetical rapist and murderer of his wife. It was a provocative question, one that required Dukakis to envision a horrifying scenario. Millions recall the question, but few remember the Governor's response. That's because the governor's response was rubbish, some dispassionate nonsense about the death penalty not being a deterrent to violent crime (I had to look up what Dukakis said, as I too failed to recollect).

Death penalty opponents make some reasonable arguments against capital punishment, but they make some bogus ones too. I used to be full of the same canned, predictable responses when it came to discussing the matter, but I've changed my tune. I won't say the song is unique, but I'll at least claim it's unusual.

Some people may deserve to die. And if I had been asked what I wanted to happen to the person who killed my wife or mother, I would have declared that I'd be tempted to destroy that person with my own hands. That's exactly what I would want to do! Given an opportunity, would I follow through? Who knows? But I know how I would feel. There's nothing wrong with those feelings when one experiences a devastating loss: rage and sorrow and misery. It's difficult to blame vicitms who confuse justice with revenge; after all, the difference between the two depends heavily on point-of-view.

But that isn't how our system works. We do not permit crime victims, direct or indirect, to carry out justice as they see fit. Doing so would be a prescription for chaos, disaster, anarchy. That doesn't mean victims should have no voice in the process, only that punishment cannot be meted out according to their desires.

Executions are not merely about what they do to the executed; they are about what they do to the executioners too. To us. I am not sorry Timothy McVeigh is dead, but I am sorry "we" killed him. Ditto for Saddam Hussein and for thousands of other depraved wretches who have been hanged, electrocuted, poisoned. It is fair enough to decide in one's own mind that someone deserves to die, but something else again to carry out the killing. In my opinion, government should never sponsor such killings, regardless of the crime.

There's more, of course. These are nearer to the conventional arguments made by death penalty opponents, but some of them bear repeating. Execution is the one thing you can't take back if a mistake is made. Recent DNA tests have exonerated a number of death row inmates. And since no system can ever be error free, it seems a dangerous risk to continue to advocate life's most irrevocable act. In addition, our formal justice system does not see fit to rob from thieves, to rape rapists, to beat up assaulters, to blackmail extortionists. So why should we kill killers when reciprocation is not acceptable elsewhere?

Opponents of the death penalty are not wrong to encourage compassion and forgiveness. But they sometimes come across as insensitive when they imply all people, especially the families of murder victims, who support capital punishment are bloodthirsty oafs. They are not. But neither are all death penalty critics weak-kneed bleeding hearts. We are not.

Capital punishment detractors often cite the "death penalty is not a deterrent" point and the compassion and forgiveness points and the "death penalty is too expensive" point and the "what if you've made a mistake?" point. All these possess some degree of merit, but aren't necessarily relevant to grieving families, most of whom don't care if executions deter murderers as a whole, aren't in the mood to forgive, aren't terribly interested in the cost, and are reasonably sure the only mistake was the murder. But there may be other ways to reach people that have yet to be tried.

For now, capital punishment is supported by most Americans. I accept that. But I believe most Americans are wrong about this. And instead of insinuating the majority consists primarily of thoughtless boors more interested in a pound of flesh than in justice, I would like to see deeper philosophical ideas discussed with less hectoring and namecalling. Of course, this is how I feel about most debates. Don't count on my wish to become reality anytime soon.


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