Beyond Vengence (11/00)


"When we abolished the punishment for treason that you should be hanged and then cut down while still alive, then disemboweled while still alive, and then quartered, we did not abolish that punishment because we sympathized with traitors, but because we took the view that this was a punishment no longer consistent with our self-respect."

These words, spoken by Lord Chancellor Gardiner during the 1965 death penalty abolition debates in the British Parliament, illustrate the view of most people opposed to capital punishment. It’s not sympathy for the murderer that we feel. Indeed, most of us feel a great deal of anger and revulsion toward murderers and their actions. Our objection is that the death penalty is a renunciation of all that’s embodied in our concept of humanity. Or, more simply put, executions degrade us all.

Today, the execution process is far removed from most citizens. We may – or, more likely, may not – be aware of the criminal acts that put someone on death row. And if we are aware, it’s usually only through sensationalized press accounts. But very few know much about the human being whom society has condemned to death. And even fewer have witnessed an actual execution. They’re carried out in the middle of the night, in the dark, to hide what they really are – a barbaric punishment symbolic of our less civilized past.

The public is kept as far away from the process as possible to keep people from seeing that a real, flesh and blood human being is being put to death. Deliberate dehumanization of the process makes it easier for people to distance themselves from capital punishment, to accept it simply as "something government does." This allows us to avoid individual responsibility for the consequences of such actions. Yet, our government, state and federal, kills people in our names.

Alternatives to capital punishment, more in line with the values of an enlightened and humanistic society, do exist. Our institutions are supposed to reflect society’s highest values. Aren’t some of these compassion, concern for human rights, and a capacity for mercy? And by continuing to conduct executions, aren’t we undermining them? As Zimbabwe poet Chenjerai Hove wrote, "The death sentence is abominable, as abominable as the crime itself. Our society must be based on love, not hatred and victimization. Our penal code must be based on rehabilitation rather than annihilation." As long as the spirit of vengeance maintains the slightest vestige of respectability, as long as it pervades the public mind and imposes its evil on the law, we’ll make little headway toward the control of crime.

As I mentioned, there are suitable alternatives. Individuals who are a danger to society must be removed from it. Society has the indisputable right to protect itself. If rehabilitation isn’t possible, or isn’t a consideration, then removal must be permanent. But that removal need not take the form of the death penalty.

Those who favor the abolition of capital punishment do not advocate releasing convicted murderers. The choice isn’t between death and unconditional release, but between the death penalty and meaningful long-term sentences. Life without the possibility of parole, or a natural life sentence, meets the necessary requirements without being excessively brutal or barbaric.

Desires for vengeance, retribution, blood atonement, and the like are difficult to suppress. Perhaps, in a sense, some individuals do "deserve" to be executed. But the real question is, Do we really need the death penalty? In view of suitable alternatives, is society paying too high a price when it executes its own citizens? The late US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once wrote, "I cannot agree that the American people have been so hardened, so embittered that they want to take the life of one who performs even the basest criminal act knowing that the execution is nothing more than bloodlust."

What can we do? Get involved, for nojustice is done if each person leaves the work to someone else. It’s time to acknowledge the death penalty for what it is – barbaric savagery – and replace it with natural life sentences. By rejecting apparently simple solutions that compromise our values and undermine fundamental principles of society, we maintain the greatness of our country. By giving in to base emotions, we lower ourselves to the level of those we seek to kill, and, in the process, weaken the moral fibers that bind and protect us. Admittedly, it’s difficult at times. But when we recognize the humanity of even the vilest criminals, when we acknowledge them as fellow human beings rather than objects to be discarded, we pay ourselves the highest of tributes and celebrate our humanity.