And Yet, They Are Like Us: The Death Penalty and Human Dignity

And Yet, They Are Like Us: The Death Penalty and Human Dignity July 16, 2020

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Human Dignity has never been a basic tenet of our society. Perhaps this is because we do not know what it is. On Tuesday, Daniel Lee became the first person in seventeen years to be executed by the Federal Government. The execution took place overnight, after four-hours of legal back-and-forth, during which he remained strapped to a gurney. Then, the executioner shot poison into his veins. They did this in the name of the American people.

Daniel Lee is not an easy person to have compassion for. He was convicted of the brutal murders of three people, including an eight-year-old girl. He was also an avowed White Supremacist. (I will not enter into the gory details of his murders. If you must know them, they are here.) It is close to impossible to empathize with this person who is the farthest thing from what any one of us hopes to be. And yet, he is like us. Because, whether we want to admit it or not, he is human. Which means he is mortal. And now he is dead.

What is Human Dignity?

Human dignity is not a religious concept. It is, however a philosophical one. There is nothing essential that we can point to that defines our essential “humanness.” There is nothing we can hold in our hands. Perhaps it’s only our bias as human beings that tells us that human beings are special, that we matter in some essential way that other animals do not.

I know there are people who believe human dignity is a myth. And this, even more than the belief in God, is the place where where I am rendered speechless in debate. We either know that human dignity is real or we do not. And it is here that I cannot move forward, or move back, or even comprehend. The chasm between myself and someone who does not believe is simply too great to cross.

Who Is Human?

We debate the death penalty in numerous way. We can discuss effectiveness, margin of error, data, science, or politics. But it all boils down to a belief in human dignity. Killing people is wrong because human beings are intrinsically, well, human. And to be human is to be irreplaceable, significant, and worthy. Or it isn’t. I have heard someone say that to kill another human being negates a person’s humanness. I’ve also heard someone say that a mother’s hope for a child grants humanness to the unborn. Both of these statements imply a similar theory: humanity has something to do with desirability. Our usefulness, or goodness, our personal way of enhancing the experience of others makes us human.

But this cannot be true. We can’t bestow or revoke human dignity, if indeed it exists. If we have it, it is ours, whether we are merely unwanted in this world or we are agents of evil. Perhaps we reason ourselves into these killings in an attempt to create separation between ourselves and that which we fear. We are the unlovable, we are the infirm, we are agents of evil in the world.

Something to Be Grasped

There is no profound conclusion to all of this, no summing up. I am heartbroken for a man who, unless God knows something I do not, is likely in Hell. I pray that He does. I pray too, that God knows something of me that I do not. That God knows exactly where my dignity sits in my soul, who I am, and what it means to be human.

About Emily Claire Schmitt
Emily Claire Schmitt is a playwright and screenwriter focused on uncovering the mystical in the modern world. She is a Core Member of The Skeleton Rep(resents). Follow her on Twitter @Eclaire082. You can read more about the author here.

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