(Please note: this blog contains two graphic images.) Perhaps, with emotions running so high over the recent murders of the four police officers in Lakewood, Washington, this is not the time to try to calmly discuss the pros and cons of capital punishment. Or, perhaps, it is exactly the time, especially when the Internet (and Facebook in particular) has been overwhelmed with posts screaming for the death of any and all “scumbags” of the type who kill police officers. Now, don’t get me wrong: I do not have sympathy for cop-killers or murderers in general. My point here is not to defend them or their actions, but to ask how we, as a nation and as a people, want to conduct ourselves now and what lessons we want to leave behind for our children.
It is difficult in the heat of emotion, fear, and loathing, not to call for the death of a murderer, if only out of vengeance. The words “he deserves it” (and I use “he” intentionally, but more on that later) are tossed around as if they are uncontestable fact and the obvious result of someone having taken a life in cold blood or under aggravated circumstances. But, vengeance alone is not a justifiable reason to kill, and we should not shape laws based on our initial reactions to tragedies or on our baser emotions. We do not, after all, call for the torture of those who torture, the rape of rapists, or the act of stealing from thieves. We realize that “an eye for an eye” may not be a policy in which we wish to take part.
If we study the facts about capital punishment, we also know that the calmer, more considered arguments for it have failed. It does not, for example, act as a deterrent, and it is more expensive than keeping someone in prison for life without parole (due to the appeals process, which is absolutely necessary, unless we want to execute even more innocent people than we already have). In addition, a poor or black or male criminal is far more likely to receive the death penalty than a rich or white or female one, even for the same crime. This discrepancy is so widespread that the unfair distribution of capital punishment alone would be reason for outlawing the penalty, even if it was the right punishment in all other ways.
Moreover, in deciding whether this punishment is appropriate, we have to ask the question, “Does life have inherent value?” If the answer is “yes,” then, regardless of from where this value comes (God? Nature? The universe?), it was not earned by deeds and probably (at least if we wish to be consistent) is not capable of being lost by them either. The “life has inherent value” argument lies behind almost all pro-life stances, and it would be inconsistent, at best, to argue that a value that was never earned by deeds can be lost by them. So, if you are pro-life, you should be anti-capital punishment. It is all well and good to speak of the innocent versus the guilty, but this question simply is not at the heart of the matter. Either human value is inherent or it is not. If you wish to argue that it is earned and lost, then I suppose you will be left with a sliding scale of value, into which each person falls—perhaps in different places at different times in their lives. That’s pretty scary and, by the way, who decides?
Finally, we have to decide whether killing other human beings is wrong per se.
We have to decide whether or not killing becomes justified by what turns out to be a matter of semantics and legality: “murder” is wrong because it is illegal, while “execution” is right because it is legal. Setting aside all self-righteous emotional calls for vengeance, do we really want to teach our children that as long as the state is the one doing the killing, then the act is somehow justified? And do we even want to teach them that death is the worst possible punishment—when criminals themselves often call for death rather than the horror of life in prison without parole. One good Act of Contrition and the killer is headed for Heaven with a bullet (no pun intended)—rather than spending a lifetime thinking, reliving, and being deprived of all the freedoms that we hold so dear. Really, life in prison without the possibility of parole does not seem to be a cake-walk.
I do not expect complete agreement with all of you. Instead, my hope is that you will think about what the death penalty truly means for all of us and, remember, that “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” It is not ours to seek. Let this open the debate once again.