Thursday, March 17, 2005

Toward a more atavistic Capital Punishment

If you're going to favor capital punishment, then Eugene Volokh has put his finger on exactly the right button. Don't pee around. Do it publically. Do it slowly. Make it as excruciatingly painful and humilliating as possible for the candidate. Let victims, survivors of the crime and others who may be so inclined take part. And enjoy every moment of the event.

It is fitting that on the anniversary of Halabja, hard on the heels of the Atlanta murders of a judge and two others by an escaping prisoner, last week's cpture of the BTK killer, and any number of other high profile ugly reasons, that someone with the stature of a top-tier blogger should point out how the satisfying effects that capital punishment - particularly in its most atavistic form - allows us to reach deep into ourselves and find one of the most fundamental of all human qualities, the righteous urge to become enraged at evil and destroy it in the most dramatic and irreversable manner possible.

Getting buried now in the disappearing string of posts we create by blogging, is a little message by Jim at Stones Cry Out, posted just after the BTK killer was apprehended. It gets off to a good start...

Just when you thought it was safe to oppose to the death penalty, along comes a scoundrel like the BTK (bind, toture, and kill) murderer in Kansas, for whom any kind of execution seems too humane.

...but fades into a more reflective mood, citing questions by a Stanford professor that are treated as rhetorical, ending inconclusively.

There do have to be cultural benchmarks that are consulted in determining the tangible implications of subjective terms. As such, as alarming as it has been made to sound in recent days, the Republic will survive the Court’s decision to take a reading of modern society.

What began with a veiled indication that capital punishment is a notion that a responsible person, a Christian even, might oppose -- ended with another tacit acceptance that this primitive impulse in our human nature does, in fact, need to have the force of law and social approval behind it. I do not want the only record of my comment interred only with that archive, so I copy it here for my own record.

Do not waver.

One of the most seductive lies from the pit of Hell is that legality and morality must be congruent. It is not so. Examples of legal behavior which is not moral include drinking into oblivion, gambling away a family fortune and and driving while sleep deprived. Examples of moral behavior which is illegal include sheltering illegal immigrants who do not meet the letter of the law for asylum but whose lives would be endangered otherwise, driving someone for emergency medical care without a license, or revealing privileged information to certain individuals who may not have the legal right to know.The law may mandate capital punishment, but that does not mean that as Christians we must give it our blessing. As Christians I firmly believe we must continue to argue for the end of capital punishment, especially when it seems most justified. Otherwise, our arguments will always allow for exceptions. It will always be tempting to excuse capital punishment because the actions of the perpetrator are depraved. The reason that capital punishment is morally wrong is because of what it does to the executioner, not the perpetrator. The executioner is not simply the individual who causes the event, it extends to every citizen in whose name the event was performed.

An execution creates a population of perpetrators which includes you and me. It is morally repugnant, not because of what it does to the criminal, but because of what it does to us. Early Christians (including Jesus, incidentally) were the victims of capital punishment, not the executioners. [It is noteworthy that according to Luke one of the others who died on Golgotha allowed as how he and the other bandit deserved to die, although Matthew and Mark state that both of the others being crucified taunted Him.]

There will always be a poster child for capital punishment. Our responsibility as Christians is to resist our most atavistic impulses and struggle with how, under disagreeable and humanly irrational conditions, we can possibly follow the Lord's command to love. When we say to hate the sin and love the sinner, this is where the rubber meets the road. The is no loving way to take a person's life, even if he seems to have it coming.

I see no discernable trend in my lifetime that mankind is in danger of losing its impulse to be savage. There have been a few noble expressions of non-violent responses to evil that have turned out well. (I might mention that this most recent example of the actions of Ashley Smith influencing an escaped killer is a recent case in point, but by the time his crimes are up in lights, her less appealing, less "newsworthy" behavior will be overshadowed by the rest of the show.) But overall the conduct of human behavior continues to be everything that Mr. Volokh is not only willing to accept, but encourage. Those of us in the minority - and a small group it is - are not even close to gaining social acceptability. In fact, in most company, it is still best we keep silent.

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