The Death Penalty

The death penalty is in the news again. The national and international attention is on Troy Davis, set to die tonight in Georgia for a murder of a police officer in 1989, even though seven of nine witnesses against him have recanted their testimony and the physical evidence is questionable.

Texas (the capital punishment capital of the Western world) has just executed one of the men involved in the racially-motivated dragging death of James Byrd. And another convicted killer received a temporary stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The origins of capital punishment do not lie with Moses or Hammurabi – they are far older. The origins of capital punishment lie with our evolutionary urge to strike back at people who hurt us. This is why you will find “normal” people calling for punishments that would make Torquemada faint, particularly when the victims are children or animals.

The very old roots of capital punishment make it difficult argue against it, since most proponents’ reasons for supporting it are emotional, not rational. As with so many issues, we make up our minds intuitively and then find reasons to support our decision, while ignoring reasons to oppose it.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t logical arguments against the death penalty – there are, and you probably already know them. It isn’t necessary to protect society, since we can sentence someone to life in prison with no possibility of parole. It isn’t a deterrent, since few murders are the result of rational decision-making. There is the chance of executing – killing – an innocent person. Those executed are disproportionately black and poor.

And none of that matters to someone who only wants to quench his evolutionary thirst for vengeance.

Fortunately, we have other urges, like compassion. Those who kill – even the most psychopathic serial killers – are still human. They are still more like us than not like us.

I’m no pacifist – attack me and I’ll defend myself. But there’s a huge difference between defending yourself and seeking vengeance. Affirming the humanity of killers doesn’t mean condoning their crimes or leaving them free to kill again – life in prison is sufficient for both.

While it is legal for me to shoot someone breaking into my house or threatening my life, even here in Wild West Texas it is not legal for me to chase that same person down the street and shoot him as he’s running away. Why, then, is it acceptable for the state to kill him in my name?

This is not “justice.” Justice is reparative, restorative – justice fixes things that were broken. Where a murder has been committed, justice is not possible – a second death is simply another body in the graveyard.

We have a choice: protection or vengeance .

We have a choice: recognizing the humanity of all or pretending that some people aren’t human.

We have a choice: ending the killing or continuing to feed our lust for blood.

End the killing now.

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