Tuesday, September 26, 2006

ultimate punishment

A month or two back when I started writing this blog, I confessed to being a churchgoer and active member in the local congregation. We seldom get involved in current events, lest we discover our "unity" to be a little less than what we had thought. Still, some aspects of religion/faith are bound to touch on things we normally regard as secular.
Crime and punishment is one of these. Specifically, capital punishment as laid out in Leviticus, then applied to life today. Leviticus, you may recall, contains most of the "fleshing out" of the original Ten Commandments into what became Law of Moses. There seems to have been little or no imprisonment proscribed for punishment as we now know it. Some crimes required compensation for the wronged party, and a large number simply demanded death as the penalty for the criminal. There's no use going through the whole list, but it includes things like disobedient children as well as adultery and murder. It runs into dozens of offenses, many of which wouldn't raise an eyebrow today.
So the Children of Israel, circa 1500 BC, have a start on being something like a self-governing people. With no more formal law than the Law of Moses, they proceed, after the 40 years of wandering, to occupy Canaan, and to live in sometime peace as a confederation of 12 tribes. It doesn't work too well, and the succeeding line of kings starting with Saul doesn't do much better. Plenty of killing takes place, though more for political (and personal) than penal purposes.
Time marches on. If anything, more executions take place, sometimes under the banner of law enforcement, often just to settle old grudges or dispose of the latest rabble rouser like Joan of Arc. The only real addition is that the ax-wielders are now Christians (at least in name), as are the majority of victims. The United States is established, and law enforcement becomes one of those shared powers between the Federal government and the states. The burning of witches disappears, only to be replaced by the hanging of cattle rustlers and lynchings, which often take place with the full knowledge if not participation of local authorities. Today in some states you can blow someone away if they're in the process of robbing your home or, in Texas, stealing your car without having to worry about legal problems. After all, you're the victim, not the guy who started it all. In defense of self and family you can enforce your own capital punishment, although there could be an investigation, just to make sure you were within your "rights" to blast away.
From heresy to disloyalty to the monarch, to espionage to rape and murder and everything in between, what would you guess the number of crimes which have affixed a capital penalty to be in our nation's history, or in human history? I couldn't even guess, but it must, I would think, be in the dozens if not the hundreds. Does anyone doubt that those carrying out the grisly mission of dispatching these folks were sure beyond doubt that they were doing the right thing? We rejoice when we hear that the #2 creep in Al Qaeda has again joined the martyrs (the real ones) in the next life. Timothy McVeigh is executed without objection, if without celebration. The former Governor Bush tells us that all the criminals whose execution he signed off on (none after more than 15 minutes of contemplation) in Texas were "guilty", without a second thought. Poll after poll shows most Americans support the lethal needle for someone for some crimes, though the list of crimes seems to be shorter than in previous decades.
My question is this: After aaaalll this time, and so many changes in so many societies, WHY do we conclude so quickly that NOW, after eons and centuries of some type of criminal system, that we FINALLY have it RIGHT? And if we're not sure that we finally have it right, would it be so awful if we joined almost all of the western democracies in refraining from this irreversable procedure? There must be some degree of doubt, since the 50 states vary widely in their interpretation of law and punishment. One state, Illinois, even had a governor put a halt to all executions in order to have someone rethink the entire matter. I'm going to continue this issue next time to see why a believer might decide that the payoff isn't worth it for our society.


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