Why Trust the State with the Power to Kill You?

One of the core contradictions in the Thing That Used to be Conservatism is that curious way in which, long after it has abandoned any faith whatsoever in the ability of the state to manage a health care system or a post office, it still maintains a rock solid belief that the state should be able to kill us.

Some conservatives, however, are beginning to seriously re-examine that assumption.

Readers are, of course, familiar with my view, which is that the death penalty, which not intrinsically immoral, is still the wrong thing to do in almost every case and should be (as our last three popes and the entire American episcopacy agree) abolished.  The argument of the author above is something more along the lines of “It’s worse than wrong: it’s stupid” by which he means that it’s stupid to entrust the power to kill into the hands of an inefficent and increasingly tyrannical state.  Not the first argument I’d use, but certainly a prudent one for Catholics to consider in a rapidly de-Christianizing culture in which our God King (and therefore all his successors) claims the power to kill anybody he likes on grounds of “national security”.  Catholics who argue zealously in favor 0f the death penalty seem to me like Christians during the reign of Nero shouting, “Why *can’t* the Emperor light his gardens with the bodies of all those riff raff in the catacombs!  It’s his *job* to keep order!  Us decent citizens believe in law and order!  If the state puts you to death, you had it coming!  We innocents have nothing to fear!”

Tell that to the innocents we’ve already executed.

  • Frank Watson

    Not every member of the episcopacy in the

    US agrees although those that don’T (I personally know 2) keep their heads down.
    Still, I don’t like the idea of this country of the past 50yrs using capital punishment any more than Red China.

  • Dave G.

    If Church leaders could find a better reason for suddenly changing the Church’s position than ‘the possibilities for which the State has for effectively preventing crime’, I might feel better about it. As it is, there were many assumptions behind allowing for capital punishment that aren’t addressed, and one reason (state preventing crime) that is like saying ‘because of the possibilities the State has for effectively preventing auto accidents, we can do away with traffic laws.’ The State is no closer to preventing crimes now than fifty years ago, and some could argue, less so than a hundred years ago. You can’t hang changing a consistent 2000 year teaching on something like that. And I think many resisting effectively changing the teaching are doing so not because they like the smell of fried innocent person in the morning, or think ‘Nero, what an example!’ It’s because they are a little concerned with the reasoning behind the sudden change. Give me a better reason than one that’s obviously and demonstrably false, and I can consider it.
    And don’t point to some obscure prison in this or that state that hasn’t had any problems for the last ten years either – if that is the reason for considering the DP, then it needs to be true now all over, not in some future. If that’s the reason, that someday the state can effectively prevent crime, then wait until the state can effectively prevent crime to change the teaching. Otherwise, we have to reconcile why the Church felt it necessary to, in addition to other reasons, allow the DP to protect the innocent from harm but now is willing to gamble with the lives of the innocent to abolish it. Those are fair questions and concerns. Not that I, someone who had always opposed the DP, would be against the Church changing its teaching on the subject. But the reasons for doing so now at this point in history have to be better than that.
    FWIW, if the Church said ‘because the rise of the State Power is so prone to corruption and abuse of power, at this stage the DP can no longer be considered a just and even solution to protecting the innocent’, then I’d sleep like a baby. But because it can prevent crime? Really?

    • jroberts548

      The violent crime rate is lower today than it was 50 years ago. So, it seems the state is in fact doing a much better job of preventing crimes, even as the death penalty is used less frequently.

      Traffic laws are the way to prevent road accidents. The Death Penalty is not the main way to prevent violent crimes.

      edited: I was mistaken. The murder rate is down. Other crimes are up. Violent crime is down over the last 40 years – it shot way up between 1968 and 1993, and has been declining since then.

      • Dave G.

        Is the state the reason the crimes are low? Is there a connection between less DP and lower crimes? Stats please. But you make my point. Crimes still happen. When, when, when the state can effectively prevent crime, then by all means. Until then, why change it based on that reasoning? And the purpose of my statement wasn’t to say crime and auto accidents are the same. My purpose was to say that basing the elimination of the DP on the state’s ability to prevent crime is as silly, and false, as saying the state can prevent auto accidents. Deal with the substance of my concern.

        • Dan

          I think the main argument against the DP is that it isn’t necessary anymore. We aren’t in the Middle Ages or ancient, nomadic Israel where it would have been obscene to house, feed, and guard dangerous criminals when good, honest people starved to death. So instead, they offered them confession and executed them because in an imperfect world where resources were limited, that was the best option.

          However, the U.S. is a first-world nation. We have the resources to safely guard dangerous criminals for the hope of rehabilitation so execution is unnecessary.

    • Heather

      I’ve always understood it more as a matter of an application of the long-standing “do not kill people unless you actually really have to” principle, rather than some new “crime prevention” hypothesis.

      There have been times in history and there may still be circumstances now where the only realistic way to protect the populace from truly dangerous criminals on a long term basis was to execute those criminals. But you really can’t make that argument about 21st century North America. If you could, then execution wouldn’t be limited to, as far as I can tell, mostly poor people with bad lawyers in a limited number of states.

  • Slocum Moe

    So many people have been executed and later doubts about their guilt for the crimes they were executed arose or even proof of innocence. It’s not good.

    • John

      Let’s suppose we do get a federal law overturning the death penalty. Who thinks a mere law will keep the God King from sending his minions to kill his enemies anyway? Thousands of laws and even whole amendments and Bill of rights are not respected now…what makes us think this same gov that runs over privacy rights, religious rights, freedom of speech rights etc. will magically refrain from formal executions or quiet “disappearances”?

      • JM1001

        Who thinks a mere law will keep the God King from sending his minions to kill his enemies anyway?

        Exactly. If someone is deemed a threat to national security (by a secret executive panel, no doubt), then that person will just be declared an un-person, subject to death and without any protection under the law.

        Which makes such cases somewhat different from death penalty discussions. At least someone convicted of a crime — and then sentenced to death — had a trial. Indefinitely detaining, or killing, a terrorism suspect without due process is even more extreme, which is why it has been the subject of such controversy and debate over the last decade.

        But Mark is right: our culture cheers for death too easily. But abolishing the death penalty for human persons won’t have much effect on an executive branch that is willing to declare someone an un-person, marked for death.

        • chezami

          This is silly. We do still have a criminal justice system. Obama does not oversee the executions of every criminal in the country. We should change the law and get rid of the death penalty.

          • JM1001

            Obama does not oversee the executions of every criminal in the country.

            Then it’s good that I never claimed Obama did any such thing. I was only remarking on your comment that we should abolish the death penalty especially in a culture in which the “God King” claims the right to kill anyone on the grounds of national security.

            I actually agree.

            I was only saying that, unfortunately, abolishing the death penalty won’t change the executive’s claimed right to kill on a “global battlefield.” Extra-judicial killing is not a “penalty” in the sense of a punishment following a judicial conviction. Hence extra-judicial killing.

            A culture that seems to accept state-sanctioned death without due process doesn’t seem likely to abolish state-sanction death with due process. More proof that perpetual war morally degrades a society.

            All that said, we largely agree on this, Mark.

    • http://janalynmarie.blogspot.com/ Beadgirl

      My father was a criminal defense attorney, and he knew of real, actual people executed for crimes they did not commit. I used to be a lawyer myself, and I’ve seen how imperfect (to put it mildly) our legal system can be. Yet another reason for me to be against the death penalty.

  • Pavel Chichikov

    What’s wrong with the Post Office?

    • Elmwood

      I agree, mostly good experiences with my mail.

  • kirthigdon

    Catholic lay scholar Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn proposed another reason for opposition to the death penalty – the effect on the souls of the executioners. He often said, “To be an executioner is not a fit occupation for a Christian”. I’ve found that this argument appeals even to agnostics and other irreligious people. To kill an enemy soldier in a just war or an aggressor in self-defense is one thing. To kill a helpless individual who is of no immediate threat either to the executioner or to society as a whole is quite another.
    Kirt Higdon

    • Dillon T. McCameron

      Something then must be said for the brutal execution by stoning, where the guilt or blame or blood or what-have-you falls upon all the persons present, i.e., the community. I mean to say that in such a case, it is society that puts the person to death. Which must make it easier for everyone’s consciences…and that much more dangerous for their souls.

  • Tim H

    The state has very little to do with preventing crime. It’s civilization people. If every law were abolished tomorrow what would keep your neighbor (or you) from stealing you (your neighbor) blind or killing you (your neighbor). It aint the state folks. Strong social bonds and informal relationships keep us safe. How ’bout we work on those and get rid of as much of the state as we can?


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