Martin LeFevre: When the State Murders Murderers
When the State Murders Murderers
The United States just executed the 1000th person since the death penalty was reinstated and Gary Gilmore was killed by firing squad on January 17, 1977. Besides the Gulf Wars, no other factor has contributed more to the moral and spiritual decline of America than these thousand State-sanctioned murders.
When the State murders murderers, it makes accomplices of all its citizens. As the Los Angeles Times said in a recent editorial, "The reason to oppose capital punishment has to do with who we are, not who death row inmates are. The death penalty is inappropriate in all situations because it is unbefitting of a civilized society."
The death penalty defines the cultural divide in America, reflecting sharply divergent worldviews by its defenders and decriers. But the debate is confined to secondary issues such as deterrence and fairness. That is, nearly all the arguments for and against miss the point.
Whether carried out by hanging, electrocution, gas, or lethal injection, ending someone's life is an act of collective savagery that saps the spirit of a people and stains them with the very toxins they seek to extirpate.
Why is that so? Because when the State puts someone to death, the poison of an individual's murder is spread throughout the society, and enters the bloodstream of the people, diminishing them and eroding the psychological, emotional, and spiritual health of the people as a whole.
The erosion of civility, fellow feeling, and basic human concord in the United States in the last quarter century is directly related to the shadow of death that has progressively fallen over the land as the drumbeat of executions have piled one on top another.
The amoral impulses of hate and vengeance that give rise to individual murder are drawn from the same source as State-sanctioned murder, even if they are called by the more palatable names of retribution and punishment. When the State kills, it disperses throughout the land the toxins that give rise to despicable crimes in the first place, and no citizen is immune from their effects.
The measure of the social health of a country is how it treats the least and worst of its citizens. The abolishment of the death penalty is a sign of civilization in a country; the reinstatement of the death penalty was a huge step backward for America.
To be a civilizing influence, the State must respond with humaneness to inhumanness. Indeed, the more vile the crime, the more necessary it is for the State to be civilized in its response. That is not some high-minded morality, or adherence to religious injunctions against taking human life. Rather than mitigating evil, the death penalty degrades a people, and increases the inhumanity and barbarity of a society.
Of course, it is an outrageous hypocrisy, in this supposedly religious country, that many of the same people who call themselves followers of Jesus are the most ardent proponents of State-sanctioned murder. As journalist Michael Rowland said, "A large proportion of Americans are devout Christians, proudly living their lives according to the scriptures. But the commandment prohibiting killing is conveniently ignored when it comes to punishing people for serious crimes."
The prevailing attitude of Americans is summed up best by John McAdams, Professor of Political Science at Marquette University: "If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call."
The primeval human reaction to violent crime is one of vengeance, retribution, and punishment. However the State's responsibility is to protect its citizens, not carry out their basest impulses. That's why injecting the emotions of the victims of violent crimes into the equation is wrong and perverse.
In addition to prevention, redressing the wrongs perpetrated upon the victims of crime (as much as possible) must be at the forefront of the State's prosecution of criminals. If not, the State is failing its citizens. Putting the emotions of victim's families on the scales of justice doesn't further that goal. If the desire for vengeance and retribution by the victim's relatives are truly important factors in the equation, then the State might as well sanction revenge killings by the relatives.
The State, and its laws, are the expression of the entirety of the citizens that reside in it. The perennial question is, how are "law-abiding citizens" to deal with people who break the law, especially those who commit heinous crimes, such as cold-blooded murder, rape, and pedophilia?
We need to rethink not only the primitive reaction of the death penalty, but also the entire notion of punishment, which is always tinged with retribution. In the end, the choice is not between punishment and rehabilitation, but between vengeance and prevention.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: email@example.com. The author welcomes comments.