According to opponents, there is a vast burgeoning awareness that capital punishment is wrong because it represents the most vicious and malicious elements of a human past we are evolving beyond. Enhancing their point is our current war against a political vision that thinks it’s appropriate to punish almost any crime with public beheading. Furthermore, the angriest, meanest, most unloving people are rarely the ones who oppose capital punishment. Which kind of people do we want to be?
Frankly, the way many people talk about executing murderers demonstrates such fury and lack of love that I cringe to find myself on their side. During my years in talk radio, I’ve often heard sentiments such as, “Those vermin deserve to suffer”; “Hangin’ would be too good for them”; “Lethal injection’s for sissies”; “Bullets cost money, but at least you can reuse a rope.” Such rage is powerful … and frightening.
Nevertheless, the fact that many of the wrong people support the right thing for the wrong reason does not require me to abandon supporting it for the right reasons. I’d like to talk such people out of their anger, but I’d also like to keep them supporting capital punishment for murderers in the process.
As for being barbaric, well, to me the barbarism is not in taking a murderer’s life, but in refusing to do so. As for the method, I’m indifferent. My sense of retribution doesn’t require suffering, and I’m unclear how gratuitous torture does a civil society much good. So, I’m basically satisfied with anything that turns a convicted murderer into a dead murderer.
Conceptual Objection: Execution is degrading to the executioner.
Even if capital punishment does no damage to the sanctity of life and no indignity to the murderer being killed, nonetheless, asking an otherwise decent human being to so ruthlessly take the life of another person damages the soul of the executioner—so the argument goes. Although I understand this concern and accept that many real executioners may feel this way, I think there is a basic misunderstanding here.
If execution is honoring of life and justice, then it cannot be the case that doing it would be harmful to the executioner. A just action cannot pollute the soul of the doer. Only unjust acts can do this. So, once the propriety of capital punishment is established, the issue of its impact on the executioner should be settled. An execution is properly understood as the only way to honor the capacity of the murderer to pay for what he has done. Likewise, allowing another human being to make this honoring possible is itself an honor, not a pollutant.
Conceptual Objection: The victim’s family often doesn’t want execution.
I’ve often seen interviews with family members of the victim who encourage leniency in sentencing the murderer. On the other hand, I’ve also seen interviews where the family wants something atrocious done to the defendant verging on torture. In both cases my response is the same. We neither execute people in order to satisfy the wrath of the victim’s family, nor do we refrain from doing so if such wrath is not present. Our justice system is not based on the idea that we do whatever the particular victim or his family wants done, but on the idea that we do what is decided upon as right by the calm, rational deliberations of the entire society. We seek justice, not the satisfying of particular, emotionally-connected impulses. Thus, individuals do not get to decide the punishment. In fact, ignoring what such people want is an important element of keeping this practice from being the unpredictable barbarity it might otherwise be.
In the next column, we will begin looking at the final kind of objections made against capital punishment: religious.