Thomas Sowell

THE execution of Timothy McVeigh has again raised the issue of capital punishment. Much of the case against capital punishment does not rise above the level of opaque pronouncements that it is "barbaric," by which those who say this presumably mean that it makes them unhappy to think of killing another human being. It should. But we do many things that we don't like to do because the alternative is to have things that make us even more unhappy.

As Adam Smith said, two centuries ago, "Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent." Those who lost loved ones in the Oklahoma City bombing do not need to spend the rest of their lives having their deep emotional wounds rubbed raw, again and again, by seeing Timothy McVeigh and his lawyers spouting off in the media. McVeigh inflicted more than enough cruelty on them already and they need to begin to heal.

Sometimes those who oppose capital punishment talk about "the sanctity of human life."

Ironically, many of these same people have no such reluctance to kill innocent unborn babies as they have to execute a mass murderer. But the issue of capital punishment comes up only because the murderer has already violated the sanctity of human life. Are we to say that his life has more sanctity than the life or lives he has taken?

Shabby logic often tries to equate the murderer's act of taking a life with the law's later taking of his life. But physical parallels are not moral parallels. Otherwise, after a bank robber seizes money at gunpoint, the police would be just as wrong to take the money back from him at gunpoint. A woman who used force to fight off a would-be rapist would be just as guilty as he was for using force against her.

It is a sign of how desperate the opponents of capital punishment are that they have to resort to such "reasoning." Since these are not all stupid people, by any means, it is very doubtful if these are the real reasons for their opposition to executions. A writer for the liberal New Republic magazine may have been closer to the reason when he painfully spoke on TV about how terrible he felt to watch someone close to him die.

Nothing is more universal than the pain of having someone dear to you die, whether or not you witness it. Nor should anyone rejoice at inflicting such pain on someone else. But one of the fatal weaknesses of the political left is its unwillingness to weigh one thing against another. Criminals are not executed for the fun of it. They are executed to deter them from repeating their crime, among other reasons.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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