me vs. the death penalty, round one

That’s right, my fellow Americans, today I will be tackling everyone’s favorite topic: the death penalty. Well, perhaps “tackling” is too strong of a word. I should say, today I will be running full force into the death penalty and getting thoroughly knocked on my butt. I say that because the topic itself is so broad that there’s no way I could cover every square inch of the issue in this blog post, or even in my decidedly and inevitably biased brain. But alas, I begin.

I believe that killing someone—anyone, no matter what they’ve done—is wrong. Most people are willing to agree that murder is immoral. It’d probably make the top five list of worst crimes a person could commit. We are especially sickened by murder if it takes place in a school or in an act of terrorism. But for some reason, a shocking amount of people are willing to turn a blind eye when the murder victim is a hardened criminal and the murderer is the state. Of course, those people would also call this justice, not murder.

By definition, murder is the illegal killing of one person by another. This definition—which will be common among most if not all dictionaries—does not make any claims regarding the morality of the murdered individual. Murder is murder regardless of the victim’s legal standing. That’s why Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kennedy’s assassin), originally received the death penalty for his crime, ironically enough. Because, even though Oswald murdered the President of the United States, Ruby did not have the legal right to kill him for it.

And yet, this is a legal right that many people are comfortable with delegating to the state. It’s wrong for a civilian to kill a criminal, but completely within legal limits for a government employee to do so while wielding a syringe filled with lethal chemicals. It’s a philosophical paradox; and not, I think, a paradox to which we can respond by simply shrugging our shoulders and saying, “It is what it is.”

One of the strongest arguments in favor of the death penalty is that the criminal deserves to die because he or she killed someone else. This “eye for eye” mentality regarding murder, however, doesn’t really align itself with the way other crimes are punished. It’s interesting to me that murder is the only crime (near as I can tell) to which parallel justice can be prescribed. For example, rapists are not punished for their crimes by being raped themselves. I think most Americans would respond to this sort of retribution with disgust, and for very good reason. Logically, one would expect this attitude to transfer over to the case of murder, but still “we kill people who kill people because killing people is wrong.” To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Now, I understand that legal executions do not take place in a vacuum. The sole intent of the death penalty is not simply to punish the criminals, but to bring closure to the victims’ families. I have never been affected by a crime worthy of the death penalty, so I understand that my right to speak on this subject may be somewhat illegitimate. However, I wonder this: Do we live in such a savage society that we cannot find closure in the wake of a crime until the perpetrator has been eliminated from the world? Does the execution of a criminal truly heal the wounds he or she has caused?

It’s important to remember that victims are not the only ones with families. While it may be plausible that the family of a victim—which is innocent—may find closure in its transgressor’s execution, there can be very little solace for the perpetrator’s family—which is also innocent. It is absolutely terrible that an innocent family must lose one of its members to murder, but causing unwarranted hurt to another innocent family should not be the answer. That would be almost like the government of a third world nation decreeing that, because some people are starving, no one gets to eat the meager rations they do have.

I would hate to end this blog post with you thinking I am some sort of anarchist who thinks everyone should be able to do whatever they want, no matter who they hurt. This isn’t the case at all. An anti-death penalty stance, I think, necessarily includes a very serious disapprobation toward murder. I believe that people who murder other people should be prosecuted for their crimes, but my concern is the end result of the prosecution. There are two primary goals I believe should be sought via the workings of the criminal justice system, and neither of them are payback. The first should be public safety, and the second should be rehabilitation.

People who commit murders are, frankly, a threat to the safety of society at large. Therefore, I believe that the principal objective of incarceration should be to keep dangerous individuals in an environment where they can do no harm to others, rather than for punishment. Many people have serious qualms about the cost-effectiveness about keeping imprisoned someone who could otherwise be executed. To that I respond in this way: I don’t know whether it’s cheaper to kill a criminal or keep him or her alive, as I’ve found many conflicting reports regarding this issue. What I do know is that we’ve taken a grievously wrong turn when we begin discussing the value of a human life in terms of dollars and cents.

The second goal, in my opinion, of the penal system should be rehabilitation as opposed to retribution. Rehabilitation says, “You messed up. Let’s see if we can get this thing turned around.” Retribution says, “You messed up. Now you’re screwed.” Rehabilitation seeks a hope for the future. Retribution seeks an end to the future. Rehabilitation sees the person. Retribution sees the crime. Of course, rehabilitation looks different for each person. For some, rehabilitation may be eventual reintegration with society. For others, rehabilitation may just be learning to accept that what was done was wrong. And, of course, there will be those for whom rehabilitation is a pipe dream, but I suppose there must be a patron saint of lost causes for a reason.

That was only part of what I had to say regarding this subject, and even then it was a grueling ordeal that cost me a few good hours of sleep. Tune in next time (or at least whenever I get around to writing more) for my spiritual approach to the death penalty, and my response to those Christians who support it.

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