Of capital punishment and 'entitlements'

Posted: Oct 29, 2002 12:00 AM
When Montgomery County, Md., prosecutor Douglas F. Gansler filed first-degree murder charges against the alleged Maryland sniper and his accomplice, he reopened, formally, the capital punishment question. Informally, it had been there all along: What do you do with those who coldly, methodically cut down their fellow citizens? What punishment fits the crime? Imprisonment or the same fate dealt out to the victims? It is a civilizational question, one that bears on the way we look at what it means to be civilized. Do we justly punish when we execute those who execute, or do we in the end degrade ourselves? And what if, failing to arrest the right party in the first place, we imprison or even kill the wrong one? The sniper case sets these questions, and others like them, in the cross hairs. Here is one answer: If we can't execute the likes of the Maryland sniper, then exactly whom can we execute? Does it get much worse than this, in intention and method if not in body count? A letter writer in The New York Times is unmoved. " ... (T)hey should not be given the death penalty," he writes, "nor should anyone else for that matter." Oh. That makes it all clear. Nothing is so bad as to merit death at hands of the state. Presumably. if our troops had rounded up Hitler and a few choice others from the Nazi regime, we would have had no choice -- no humane choice -- but to jail them and feed them three times a day. Something here does not compute. Neither does the absolutist logic of The New York Times letter writer: no executions; ever; forget it; go away. You could call this one odd demand to make in the age of entitlement. Supposedly, entitlements abound everywhere -- generally centered on rights, respect or money. We are forever trying, it seems, to make up for the claimed offenses of the past. Slavery is one such; the indicated remedy, we hear, is cash reparations to the descendants of slaves. This would be justice, we are told. Well, the talk turns to capital punishment: death for those who have killed. Justice suddenly takes on new connotations. The entitlement question goes south for the winter. Confinement with three meals a day, a warm bed, and "Days of Our Lives" and "The Bachelor" -- surely a compassionate society might regard this arrangement as equitable punishment? (In the case of "The Bachelor," maybe so.) Those who make such pleas generally consider themselves liberals. They dab tenderly at their eyes with handkerchiefs at the idea of execution. Execution overthrows the idea of entitlement, which is supposed to mean that, on getting what's coming to you, you smile and rattle some change. Getting what's coming to you in the form of extinction -- well, that just won't do. Nothing is good about the sniper episode: the deaths, the anguish, the dislocation of normal life. The punishment our capital and its environs have received is extraordinary. One factor is potentially redemptive. The sniper episode shows us the hollowness of the liberal-pacifist contention that never, never, never is the state justified in executing the guilty. Balderdash! Horsefeathers! What does our letter writer to The New York Times mean, no one "should be given the death penalty"? To accept that ludicrous contention is to argue, below the surface of conscious thought, that the lives of the sniper's victims are of less value than the sniper's own life. We can't call John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo the snipers until a court of law declares them as such. Nor, pending such an event, can we meditate on their sentences. What we can do confidently is spurn in advance the deranged notion that under no circumstances can a low, skulking murderer be considered in possession of a privilege not accorded his victims -- the privilege of breathing, loving, living in a world neither completely sane nor, yet, one hopes, completely nuts.