Usually, like most people, I find that things are very clear in theory, but much messier in practice. Clean, orderly theories often become much more, let’s say nuanced, when they’re forced to deal with a complicated reality. But, strangely, I’ve realized that there’s one issue which, for me, is exactly the opposite of this: the death penalty.
In theory, I am against the death penalty, but I am conflicted about that position. At the end of the day, I don’t believe that capital punishment is right – I don’t think that we can build a moral society by killing people (or, to be more precise, that killing people is an effective part of building a larger, moral society). It’s a bit like spanking your kids for fighting – can you really teach them to be non-violent by being violent towards them (most child experts say, “no – you can’t,” for what it’s worth)? I tend to follow the Rabbis of old, who understood the death penalty as an extreme ideal, but one which was never meant to be put to use. “Your crime is so heinous as to deserve death, but it’s not up to us to impose such a terrible punishment,” seems to be the gist of the message our sages try to convey.
But, I really do understand those who support the death penalty. I hear about awful, heinous crimes, and I want someone to die for them. I read about molesters, and mass murderers, and serial rapists, and I have a lot of trouble summoning moral outrage at the idea of their being put to death. So, even though, if were up to me, we wouldn’t impose the death penalty on these awful, evil people, I can admit that I’m not 100% sure that’s the only right approach.
But, in the face of actual reality, my opposition to the death penalty becomes much more strident, and absolute. Today, the New York Times ran an Op Ed by Bob Hebert, talking about what may be the clearest case yet of an innocent being put to death. I’ll warn you, it’s a chilling read. In 2004, a Texas man was executed for the killing, by arson, of his three children. And, it seems that not only is there not a single shred of evidence that he did it, or that it was arson at all, but there never was. The entire case was built on sand.
This man watched as his home burned with his three children inside of it. He was injured trying to get them out, and then had to be restrained, at one point using handcuffs, to keep him from going back in to try to get them again. He lived through the worst horror I can possibly imagine, and then was accused of perpetrating that horror. And then, he was killed for it. All along, knowing that he was innocent.
This was not a 30-year old case, in which we have new evidence that, maybe, something was handled badly. This execution happened in this decade, with all the necessary technology and wisdom available to save his life, and yet the system failed him. Those who support the death penalty must, I believe, face a clear fact: keeping the death penalty legal all but guarantees that, at least some of the time, innocents will be executed. To believe that we can have capital punishment, and not have it sometimes misapplied, seems almost farcical to me. Humans make mistakes. Systems created by humans have flaws. Nothing is perfect. Innocents have been put to death. Innocents will be put to death. That’s the reality of the death penalty.
If there is anyone reading this who does support the death penalty, I would love to hear your counter-argument. In all sincerity, not to attack you – can you please explain how, in the light of this revelation, you can continue to support capital punishment? Are you willing to let some number of innocents die, in the name of greater justice? Or, do you believe that it’s possible to create a perfect system, even if we haven’t done so already? I don’t see any other choices.
Reasonable people can debate the philosophy behind this, and I’m willing to be swayed. Maybe, in a perfect world, the death penalty has a time and a place. But, in our world, the world we actually live in, it’s time to admit that the power over life and death is too great to be wielded imperfectly. Which means it’s too great to be wielded at all.