Saturday, January 14, 2006

On the death penalty

Norman Geras of Normblog cites an interesting quote by Sister Helen Prejean on her attendance at executions - Being there. She says, "I go there to be there for them. When they look in my face they see someone who cares about them and believes in their dignity. They know that I will tell their story. You have to steel yourself to be utterly thinking of them. It is afterwards that you vomit." She is, of course, the nun who is opposed to the death penalty and her work with men facing the death penalty was the subject of first her own book and then the movie Dead Man Walking. She has recently published another book on the death penalty, entitled The Death of Innocents.

An article about her in the Guardian (UK) says, "She has attended the executions of men she knows to be guilty of horrific crimes, but also of men she believes to be innocent, and prays with and counsels their families and those of victims. She believes that executions are morally wrong but the killing of the innocent, subjected often to a callous and stubborn judicial refusal over years properly to reinvestigate their cases after conviction, fills her with revulsion."

Her opinion of politicians and judges who use the Bible to justify executions:
Sister Helen is scathing about politicians and judges who use the Bible to justify executions. "I call it Christianity-lite. It's not real Christianity. Truly it is blasphemy. Jesus Christ is being held hostage by these people: his whole message is being perverted." ...

The book is fiercely critical of the supreme court justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic who claims to be obeying biblical injunctions and the intentions of the 18th-century framers of the US constitution. Sister Helen has little more hope for Mr Bush's appointments to the supreme court - John Roberts, also a Catholic, and the nominee Samuel Alito.

"They come out of the same George Bush cookie cutter. They have a certain ideology and it is not one that will be on the side of standing up for people's rights. They are rightwing authoritarians. These people put on five pairs of white gloves when they are considering death penalty cases.

"They do not see the people they are dealing with as human. That's how Auschwitz happened."
I have mixed feelings about the death penalty. On the one hand, I find it revolting that the state may be killing innocent people - but on the other hand, the crimes that the guilty have committed are horrific and sicken me.

Even if it seems to me that someone deserves to die for his crimes, it is still something I find very troubling. I was very disturbed when Timothy McVeigh was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing, in which 168 people were killed. In part I was troubled because I supported his execution. I woke up that morning just at about the time of the execution and as I listened to the radio I had the sick feeling that I (and anyone else who supported his execution) was implicated in his death. I still am not sure what I think about the death penalty. It certainly does not seem to be a deterrent to violent crime, innocent people can be killed for acts they did not commit, and it is obvious that the death penalty is imposed very unequally across the U.S.

Thinking about this, I came across an interesting blog entry by Jay Lassiter - Everything I know about the death penalty, I learned from Pope John Paul II (typos corrected by me). He said about the late Pope's stance:
But when I heard Pope John Paul II discuss the death penalty in the context of forgiveness and vengeance, I was moved to revisit the issue (and my own ideas of forgiveness.) The Pope mentioned that support for the death penalty is generally rooted in desire for revenge. He acknowledged the legitimate urge for justice, but suggested that justice can never be achieved through vengeance. He admonished those who cite Biblical scripture to justify a pro-death penalty stance. According to the Pope, the oft-repeated proverb "an eye for an eye...." (Lev. 24:20) was not a recipe for vengeance, rather it meant to serve as a cautionary tale against the escalation of violence in general. The Pope also pointed out that Jesus' position on the death penalty was clear: rather than retaliation, we should "turn the other cheek" and extend our hand in healing, blessing, and forgiveness. (Matthew 5:38-55) ...

The Pope advanced the argument that when a prisoner (who poses no threat to society) is executed, it sends the message that life is worthless, thus we can view the death penalty as an injustice to the sanctity of life. I share the Pope's belief that execution does not end with the death of the criminal, but affects each and every one of us living in a society which justifies capital punishment. I admit it's instinctively pleasing to judge those who commit heinous crimes as worthless or "less-than" but we should resist this temptation. If we convince ourselves that some among us deserve death, then we forget that all of us deserve forgiveness and the grace to amend our lives. Fighting violence with violence for the sake of vengeance does not serve a useful role in this country. Nor does it allow society to cultivate less vengeful methods of dealing with violent crime.
It is interesting here that Lassiter brings in the themes of forgiveness and the importance of not treating fellow humans as if they were worthless. It is so easy for me to feel angry at people who commit horrible crimes that I forget my agreement with these elementary moral truths. The desire for revenge can certainly overwhelm one's moral judgement.


  1. This is very interesting, I also posted an article concerning the hypocrisy of capital punishment... it is in my december archives entitled: life issues: part 1... Hi I just posted some cool quotes by JPII. I have enjoyed reading through your archives (i linked over here from a blog search) I would love to establish a reciprocal link with your blog, if you're interested, let me know

  2. I'm definitely against the death penalty.

    Not because I think it is immoral or wrong for human to kill human under any circumstance; I believe in the right to self-defence, and extend that to military action if there is no other alternative.

    But execution is avoidable, it's only optional, and I'm convinced by the evidence that too often humans are insufficiently competent to always universally determine guilt. And I'm convinced it is immoral to allow for any error in determining who should die.

    So until such time as humans achieve divine omniscience and omnicompetence, I oppose the death penalty, much though I might agree that various individuals "deserve" it, and I would or do not lose sleep over the killing of such individuals. But that's, in the overall scheme of things, for me, besides the point.