Though the most fervent discussion on capital punishment has died down (we had our say a few weeks ago), a recent treatment of the subject is worth your consideration – in particular because it addresses some of the common objections, such as dealing with unjust governments and the scandal of innocent men sent to die.
There are pro-lifers who think that rejecting capital punishment will show the depth of their commitment to human life as an absolute and unconditional good. They hope that this extreme, outrageous gesture will convince their opponents to come on board, and reject the cost-saving, ruthless expedients of abortion and euthanasia. That tactic reminds me of arguments I had with pro-choicers back in college, who’d cite my support for capital punishment to prove that my views were inconsistent.
“Okay,” I’d answer. “I think the death penalty is justified, but I’m not attached to it. Let’s trade: I’m willing to eliminate executions, if you will ban abortions. I’m willing to spare the guilty, if you will spare the innocent.” Nobody took the deal.
Perhaps I didn’t bid high enough. Maybe Christians should up the ante, and embrace pacifism and anarchism, as Dorothy Day did. Eliminating our armed forces and disarming our policemen would be an even more “radical” gesture of this kind of reverence for life. Would that convince Planned Parenthood to stop dismembering babies? Would it win over ISIS to cease beheading civilians? There is much more to moral suasion than hysterical, grandiose gestures — especially those that play into the hands of our enemies.
The other reasonable motive for objecting to capital punishment is fact-based: It is often abused. Some countries such as Saudi Arabia and China execute criminals for offenses that do not remotely call for capital punishment, if any punishment at all.
Here at home, each year seems to turn up another innocent man sitting on death row, for the “crime” of having employed an inadequate attorney — often an unqualified public defender appointed by the court. Such cases rightly appall us, and ought to inspire a moratorium on ordinary criminal executions, until our system is fixed.
But abuses do not prove that capital punishment is intrinsically unjust, any more than the imprisonment of innocent people “proves” that we need to throw open all the penitentiaries, just in case. The abuse of an institution doesn’t disqualify it from being used rightly and justly. The same U.S. Army that expelled American Indians also marched south and freed the slaves.
Yes, we must spare the innocent. The execution of an innocent man, like his imprisonment, casts a stain on the whole system of justice — which performs a central and sacred civilizational duty: To embody the deepest and highest aspirations of a people, to render societal retribution against those who violate the inalienable rights of others and to protect the innocent from exploitation by human predators.
These are duties which we as individuals delegate to the state. A state which completely ceased to perform those duties would lose our allegiance, and those rights would revert to us. If you steal my property, I have a human right to recover it. If you murder my sister, I have a human right to expect that you will be punished. To avoid the anarchy of feuds and private vengeance, we hand over such cases to an impartial authority, and abide by its imperfect decisions. But the human right remains, and if the state routinely fails to mete out justice, the government falls into crisis — and failing every peaceable remedy, a revolution may be in order, as our Founding Fathers knew.
It’s a well-made case that steers the debate away from the traditional vs. moral teaching clashes and into the territory of rights and reason. The whole essay is worth your time.