REFLECTIONS ON THE DEATH PENALTY

Without exception, I am opposed to the death penalty.  Regardless of the heinousness of the crime, I do not believe state-sponsored killing is appropriate.  I am a nonviolence practitioner and hold to the pacifist faith; hence, my firm disagreement over capital punishment is coherent with my individual and social ethics.

Some argue in favor of the death penalty from a punitive perspective: the degree of justice must be commensurate with or proportional to the extent of the pernicious perpetration.  If a person kills another, especially in a premeditated manner and not out of self-defense, then the murderer should also lose one’s life.  This point of view seems fair and logical on the surface.  However, there are different forms of justice: retributive, procedural, procedural, and distributive, to name a few.  When determining what best suits a particular homicide, relevant types of justice should always be considered.  Killing the murderer is a tit for tat, quid pro quo, eye for an eye reaction to what horrifies or scandalizes us.  Ostensibly, it is fair; but decisions about fairness depend on values and morals, sociocultural ethos, emotional intelligence, context, and so forth.  Retribution might appear to be equal justice, but its goal inveterately remains revenge, i.e., getting one’s condign deserts.

I empathize with those who suffer loss; most of us do.  The unnecessary and sudden demise of a person is always tragic and can be understandably infuriating, yet vengeful killing does not accomplish anything constructive and gratification or fulfillment is utterly elusive.  It is not justice.  Rather, it is a weird kind of selfishness that cannot really satisfy for obvious and subtle reasons.  Any amount of punishment meted out against the perp will not bring back the dead.  The loss will always be sad and difficult.  Killing the criminal precludes the possibility of redemption.  And the state colludes with the posture of payback instead of exercises its transcendent moral and judicious authority.  Nothing is accomplished save another death, and the void among the mourners lasts as long as their memory cords lengthen.

Furthermore, I am not a fan of restorative justice in the sense of seeking to reconcile perpetrators with mourners.  That kind of appeasement is too saccharin for me, and unrealistic, in my opinion.  Perhaps, such conciliation might momentarily lighten the burdens of family, relatives, and friends, and assuage the guilt of murderers.  However, I think of these psychological maneuvers as cosmetic gestures and not germane to the provision of justice and fairness.  I guess I incline towards ensuring public safety, making bereavement services available to those in need of it, requiring due process under law for offenders, and balancing sentencing with rehabilitative services, education, and medical treatment.  Violence breeds violence, and one salient way to stop that vicious cycle is to offer effective alternatives that do not mirror the brutality of the offense or palliate the vengefulness of the bereaved.

So what next?  If not capital punishment, then what?  From my vantage point, the answer depends on what paradigm we use for our society.  I am not overly idealistic: I realize that malignancy and inhumanity abound in every place on this globe.  Nevertheless, I maintain that character can change and people who were once obstreperous and abusive can become disciplined and mannerly with intervention and assiduous effort.  Whereas I note that sentencing life without the possibility of parole has numerous supporters, I stand unconvinced that this ruling ought to be universal for all murderers.  Social facts and contextual circumstances must be examined together in order to analyze a situation comprehensively.  “Without the possibility of parole”—could such a sentence ever be too extreme, restrictive, and not generalizable?  I believe it could.  If we believe that people can actually change for the better, then peremptory sentencing must answer to the axiological, personalistic, and communitarian aspects of moral law.

In what type of society do you want to reside?  That is the fundamental question.  I want to live in a land where we work indefatigably to prevent the marginalization of people and afford every person the opportunity to participate fully in the body politic.  This endeavor requires us to remove the obstacles to success and continually to identify the causes and effects of lawlessness, chicanery, and resort to violence.  Once these ills are known, we could develop ways to eradicate them and, at least, shape a society in more wholesome, compassionate, and purposeful ways.

About mdbwell

Pres., Project for the Beloved Community B.A.--Wesleyan University M.Div.--Yale University Ph.D.--Boston University Summer Study--Harvard University Advocate for the poor
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