I was for the death penalty before I was against it.
I was for it when our children were little and their care was my obsession. The world seemed so full of murderous and dangerous people.
Later when they were grown and responsible for their own care, I was against it.
And I’m still against it today.
Questions of such searing import deserve much consideration and reconsideration as we pass through the stages of our lives. Hopefully the perspective of years allows us to make wiser decisions.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve reached after many decades of struggling with the issue:
The entire system of the death penalty is not worth the wrongful execution of even so much as one innocent person (as we most likely saw yesterday with the Troy Davis execution).
Notice that this is not an argument over its efficacy as a deterrent or any such “practical” consideration. Rather, it’s a moral/ethical judgement.
Nor is it a sentimental argument based on an unrealistic view of the possibility of reforming every guilty criminal. The sad truth is that there are some genuinely guilty violent human beings who are beyond repair. It’s true that society would always be better off without such irredeemable people.
But here’s the question: Do you trust the state to unerringly determine who is innocent and who is guilty in every case, without exception?
I could support a death penalty that is perfect, but since it isn’t perfect and can never be perfect, I oppose it absolutely.
To understand this moral/ethical opposition, try the following “thought experiment:”
Think of someone you love more than you love your own life, someone for whom you would willingly give up your own life. Then ask yourself whether the entire system of the death penalty is worth the wrongful execution of that person, who has been wrongfully charged with a crime s/he did not commit?
If, after doing this thought experiment, you still support the death penalty, then you have some ‘splainin to do. Not to us, but to yourself. At the very least, arriving at such a perverse conclusion should make you want to review your own moral/ethical frame. How could it not?
You should at least consider whether there might be a different frame within which the abolition of the death penalty returns a benefit to society far beyond any ever gained by the “justice of retribution,” and is in that sense even more practical. “Restorative justice,” we might call it.
I agree with Mario Cuomo, whom I once heard say about the death penalty something like this: “I may wish for revenge personally in any given case, but our laws should reflect our highest and best impulses as human beings.”
His statement binds together what is ultimately most practical with what is most moral and ethical, and rises above the natural lust for revenge and the remnant tribal religious impulses that continue to drive support for the death penalty.
My strong personal reaction to the killing of Troy Davis yesterday was sadness and revulsion.