The Ultimate Folly of the Death Penalty

Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.
– Gandalf, in The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Yesterday I had a discussion with a work colleague that eventually turned toward crime and punishment in society, which included a segue toward the death penalty.  My colleague stated that he is very much in favor of it, especially to be applied to people who commit what he perceives as egregious crimes — child molestation, serial rape, and murder.  In fact, when it came to applying the death penalty to perpetrators of these crimes, my colleague said that he would be happy to “pull the switch all day long.”

While I shared his basic premise that there are unrestrained psychopaths and disturbed, sick individuals that need to be removed from broader society, I have to admit that I am left troubled by the seemingly bloodthirsty glee with which people express support for harsh punishment doled out by our legal system, especially the death penalty.  Especially when we look at the moral, philosophical, and concrete issues that are bound up in this approach.  I’ll start with the concrete, and move to the more abstract reasons to look more critically at our legal system in general and capital punishment in particular.

First, there are increasing numbers of cases coming out in which we find that men who were convicted of capital offenses and sentenced to death are found to be innocent and having their cases overturned.  It’s not a far leap of logic to conclude that if more of these cases are coming to light now, it means that innocent people have been put to death by the criminal justice system.  And one of the common rallying cries for capital punishment (as voiced by my colleague) is tied up with doing away with legal appeals to reduce public expenditures and taxes — which would inevitably result in more people being put to death for crimes they didn’t commit.

Second, there are dynamics of the centralized state that need to be considered.  Centralized states tend to attract the least suited to rule (people who are vain, corrupt, desire to control others, and consumed by their own ambition).  By legalizing the death penalty, we are literally turning over power over life and death to these people.  Many of the instances of people wrongly convicted for capital offenses have included illegal or unethical behavior on the part of state prosecutors and police.  Furthermore, when centralized states are given (or assume) greater power for the purposes of protecting the general population or maintaining “law and order,” that power is eventually turned toward the citizenry it was supposedly designed to protect.  For examples of this all we have to look at are the revelations over NSA spying on American citizens, orders-of-magnitude increases in the frequency of police SWAT raids, and the instances of systemic police brutality and Constitutional rights violations in poor, urban communities that have increasingly come to public attention.  Given the reality of these trends, increasing the use of capital punishment would put even more power into the hands of institutions that have recently shown a predilection to abuse the power that they already have.

Third, the expansion of capital punishment is at odds with the moral framework of pretty much every major religion that is out there.  Having been raised in the Christian tradition, a large part of my personal philosophy is founded in Christian ethics.  Central to these ethics, especially as described by Jesus in the Gospels, are: compassion, forgiveness, atonement and charity.  In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus specifically calls upon his followers to love their enemies, and to refuse to hate those who would do harm to them.  Having studied other world religions in a historical sense, these sentiments are largely universal.  Support for the death penalty is a violation of these basic moral principles, and support of an expansion of its application flies in their face to a greater degree.

Fourth, the question of the death penalty in particular, and punitive punishment in general, confront basic questions of what kind of society we want to be.  There is an old Cherokee legend that helps to put this into perspective:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

When viewing the death penalty through this lens, we have to ask, which wolf are we feeding?  Moral and ethical principles are not platitudes only to be maintained so long as it is easy to do so, and abandoned as soon as things become difficult or conflicted.  They are meant to be guideposts that help us to maintain consistency in our actions.  When we tell ourselves that we are a society of good people who help each other out in times of need, and then support the expansion of state-sanctioned killing as a means of expediency to better establish law-and-order or satisfy a need for vengeance, are we remaining true to the story that we tell ourselves?  Or is that story a falsehood, a mask that we wear because we’re afraid that if we hold the mirror up to our uncovered face, we will find that the reflection reveals that we have become all that we profess to stand against?