Wednesday, October 04, 2006

To Kill or not...?

As things were left last week, the discussion centered on capital punishment, and that using things like the Bible or this country's history as guides was unreliable due to all the changes in societies in the previous centuries. What follows is meant to continue the discussion.
But some things have happened to interrupt the process. The most high profile of crime in the past few years, school shootings, has arisen again in three separate incidents, all in rural areas, with two of the three involving an adult shooter unconnected with the schools themselves. I mention these because of the natural tendency to want 1. An explanation of how or what "failed" to protect us, and 2. A solution that will guarantee that something so horrible can't happen again. That people would want the shooters dead is also not surprising. Who wouldn't feel that way?
At the risk of sounding smug, I suggest that the best advice may come from those not directly involved. It's well nigh impossible to enter the mind of a murderer regardless of what we hear from family or neighbors. That the shooters turned the guns on themselves may prove that death itself was not a deterrent to the criminals, but what about other arguments made in favor of carrying out executions? First, that it is simply too expensive for society to pay the criminal's living expenses in prison, perhaps for decades? Or another lately used claim that only execution brings any kind of closure to victims' loved ones?
I think educated people know by now that it's almost always the state itself that pays for the defense of accused murderers. The quality of the defense or the prosecution can be good or poor, but most states make executing a person, even after conviction, hard to do. I believe it should be hard to execute someone. The appeals process takes years to exhaust itself, and those are very expensive years in terms of legal fees. They are, in fact, so expensive as to exceed the normal cost of decades of simple imprisonment. The media will often comment on how long it took to finally execute someone, but they refrain from saying that room, board and medical care made up just a fraction of the late criminal's real cost to the state. As with many things in life, it's a boon to lawyers, but that's about it.
Then there's the "closure" argument. Here again, we are required to go into someone else's mind, this time that of the survivor. Our only test for the effectiveness of the execution is to perform it, then ask if "closure" was achieved. Note that we may ask victims of other types of crimes about their losses, but we don't permit them to set the terms of fines and/or imprisonment. What if the victims say that executing the murderer just wasn't "enough"? What other option is there? Permitting victims to kick or stab the dead corpse? Fairness, it seems, is impossible to achieve.
Our legal system is actually made up of the systems of 50 states and hundreds of local systems within them. Capital punishment customs not only vary from state to state, but within them, too. And that's not even accounting for race as a factor in sentencing. Does the defendant have assets he can apply to his defense that the average person doesn't? Justice really is "up to God", since people have so many different opinions about it, and are subject to manipulation as well. There are too many variables here.
I think that's where we should leave it - with God, I mean. Most of the western democracies have left capital punishment behind, and are aghast that we still hace it in most states. Yes, some people simply can't be let loose, and we have to decide who those are. There
should be such a thing as "life without possibility of parole". But believers should have no problem feeling that if the average person will one day face a judgment that is absolutely fair and impartial, then killers, rapists, traitors and assassins will face the same judgment and receive precisely what they deserve, from a judge no one would second guess. I guess I'd go crazy if I didn't feel this way, so I'm endorsing my own prejudices. But when Job wished for an explanation of all he had endured, the voice of the Lord said, in so many words, "Don't ask." We'll have to live with that until something better comes along.


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