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Friday, April 26, 2013

The Death Penalty - Vengeance And Retribution Are Enough Justification

The arguments for and against the death penalty have been debated for decades, and recently (8/18) Pope Francis has weighed in, stating unequivocally that the Church has changed its long-standing position, and that execution is morally wrong. 

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In their book entitled Deterrence and the Death Penalty Daniel S. Nagin, PhD, Professor of Public Policy and Statistics at Carnegie Mellon University, and John V. Pepper, PhD, Professor of Economics at the University of Virginia, concluded that there was no evidence either way, and that policy decisions should not be made on the basis of current evidence:
"...[R]esearch to date of the effect of capital punishment on crime is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on crime rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on crime rates. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the crime rate by a specified amount or has no effect on the crime rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment." (ProCon.org)
The support for the death penalty in America is still high at nearly 55 percent (Gallup Poll 2017) but significantly lower than the high of 80 percent in 1978.  This support for and the vehement opposition to public executions, then, has had to do more with moral judgments and Biblical injunctions than more practical and secular concerns for social justice or civil rights.

Another Gallup Poll listed the reasons Americans supported the death penalty, and 37 percent said “An eye for an eye”, “They took a life”, or “It fits the crime”.  Additional respondents replied “Biblical injunction”, “They deserved it” and  “Fair punishment”.  If all these responses are taken together approximately 60 percent of those who favor execution justify their choice on moral grounds.

Alan Dershowitz, writing in The Guardian (4.26.13) has always been strongly opposed to the death penalty and feels no differently regarding the case of the Boston bomber discussed widely in the press a number of years ago. 
Seeking the death penalty against Tsarnaev, and imposing it if he were to be convicted, would turn him into a martyr.  His face would appear on recruiting posters for suicide bombers.  The countdown toward his execution might well include other acts of terrorism.  Those seeking paradise through martyrdom would see him as a role model.
 Image result for images alan dershowitz

While this is a rational argument, it will hold no water at all with the many Americans who believe in the death penalty on moral grounds.  In their eyes what Tsarnaev and his brother did was a heinous crime against God, America, and the people who were killed or injured in Boston.  To capitulate their principled beliefs at this time, more than any other, would be to give in to the forces of materialism, secularism, and pragmatism.  Executing Tsarnaev would add a higher order of retribution for the crime. Executing him would raise the consequences of his act from punishment to retribution. 

Invoking as it would the Biblical injunction to take one life for another, execution would add religious conviction and authority to simple, practical justice. Capital punishment is more a statement of our belief in God and the Bible and an expression of a muscular Old Testament tradition than simply a punishment which fits the crime.

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Why shouldn’t this be a justifiable reason for the death penalty, given that there is no conclusive proof that it deters crime.  Why shouldn’t Americans legitimately express their deep moral rectitude and religious principle? 

At the same time it is surprising that in such a Christian country, we choose Old Testament guidance rather than New Testament charity and forgiveness? Jesus Christ, for that matter, was himself given the death penalty for his supposedly seditious, terrorist activities.  He was wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, and certainly wrongly punished by the State.  Are there no parallels here to the modern age? Why have we who have adopted Jesus Christ as our personal savior, friend, and companion, turned away from His exhortations to love our enemies, to be generous and forgiving, to hope and pray for redemption rather than resort to vindictiveness and indignation?

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This doctrinal distinction, however, doesn’t matter. Whether we choose the Old Testament over the New makes no difference since we are heirs to both. 

Executing a murderer who has taken innocent lives deliberately and at random has in a way murdered us all.  We are all victims because we could have been there.  Not only that, the murderer showed no moral compunctions whatsoever.  By committing the act as a political statement, and by celebrating the killing of children as perhaps the most powerful statement of will and determination, further removed Tsarnaev from any Christian consideration of forgiveness or charity.  It is one thing for one drug dealer to assassinate a rival; but another thing altogether to slaughter innocent people.

There is a barbarism inherent in terrorism, most of us feel; and arguments that the United States must accept at least some responsibility for it enrage us even more.  Even if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were military adventurism at its worst; and even if they inflamed the Middle East, there is nothing to excuse the inhuman taking of life. The death penalty for Tsarnaev is our very American way of saying to our enemies that you are not simply dealing with a determined nation – “We will hunt you down; and we will find you” – but a Biblical one – “And we will kill you”.

Other than the discredited or at least questionable issue of deterrence, the only argument that might turn a few proponents of the death penalty is innocence.  More and more, death row inmates are found innocent based on new DNA testing.  Shouldn’t Christians be concerned about taking innocent life wherever it might be found? While this argument might cause some to reflect on universal death penalties; it has little relevance to terrorists who willingly admit their defiant acts. 

Many Americans are for the death penalty because it feels right. There is simply something wrong with a system that allows a mass murderer to live, repentant or not.  The movie Dead Man Walking is based on a true story of a Catholic nun who encourages a murderer to confess his sin, to repent having done it, and thus be forgiven by Jesus Christ.  He does confess and repent, but he is still put to death, and the parents of the murdered children are glad to see him pay the price.

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It is not clear why America should be vilified for retaining the death penalty.  Europeans in particular chastise us for our primitiveness, the excesses of an individualistic society, and our dog-eat-dog, eye-for-an-eye world of the Wild West.  We have not yet cohered as a modern, progressive society, they say, and the death penalty is the perfect example of our crudeness and ignorant defiance. 

There is some truth in this criticism.  Public executions today are not that far removed from stringing up cattle rustlers from the nearest tree; and the same direct, retributive justice applies in both cases.  Before there was civil law, citizens had to take it into their own hands, and there was no careful parsing of secular justice.  Offenses against civility – rustling cattle or killing – had to be punished quickly, severely, and absolutely.  Our 19th Century forbears decided on what crimes justified hanging just as we do now.  The sense of frontier justice still remains in most of us.

Image result for images wild west hangings

At the same time, the European demands for abolition of the death penalty are the worst kind of patronizing hectoring, for they deny our legitimate frontier roots, our religious fundamentalism, and our particular brand of crime and punishment.  There is no such thing as a universal moral and social order and to try to impose a foreign social philosophy is arrogant and presumptuous.

In conclusion, retribution based on moral outrage is as good a reason as any to put to death criminals who have killed others.

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