On the death penalty

I will start by saying this.

There are times I read or hear about a case. Someone who, for example, rapes and murders a child. And my gut reaction is to say, “Kill him”. He doesn’t merely deserve to be removed from society, but to be denied of life for his abomination. It is a gut reaction, a cry of the heart, a revulsion at a crime so heinous that it defies understanding. And as humans, often what we don’t understand must be excised, like a cancer. I know if someone murdered a person I loved, my thirst for vengeance would be nigh unquenchable, sated only by the ending of his or her own life.

In Iran a few weeks ago, a young life was about to be extinguished in punishment for murder. The noose was around his neck. He was begging and pleading for his life. Then, the mother of the boy he killed ascended to the hangman’s platform. She slapped the convicted’s face. And then she told the executioner to remove the noose.

This happened in what many Americans consider to be a barbaric, retrograde state, a terrorist state, opposed to all we hold dear. A mother climbed onto the platform where her son’s murderer was about to be executed, and forgave him. No more blood would be spilled. The cycle would end then and there.

Yesterday, an execution in Oklahoma was botched due to an incorrect mixing of the lethal cocktail. This was an execution pushed for by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin. She suspended the second—SECOND—execution scheduled for that day “pending further review”.

But we have much to learn from that courageous Iranian mother.

She chose not to use her son’s murder as an excuse for judicial murder.

She chose to end the cycle of death. She allowed her son to die, and took the justice she needed from his murderer. She confronted him, and he will live the rest of his life knowing that his life was spared by the mother of the boy he killed.

I’m not making excuses for Iran. It still has its fair share of executions. So do China. And Saudi Arabia. And North Korea. And Pakistan.

And the US.

That is the company we keep. No other Western nation condones state execution. We are forced to cavil that “we don’t execute as much as China does”.

Is that the company we wish to keep? Do we wish to make the excuse that “we’re not as bad as them”?

As I said, I read about cases, and my soul thirsts for vengeance. Only the ultimate penalty will suffice to punish the crime.

But, I’m not a barbarian. I do not—or at least, should not—live in a barbaric nation.

A government excoriated for its inability to meet basic needs is somehow entrusted with the power of life and death over its citizens. The percentage of Americans who believe in the death penalty has steadily declined, but it’s still a majority. The same electorate which looks askance at the government’s ability to provide healthcare for its citizens has faith in its ability to execute only the guilty.

Too many Americans believe that the death penalty is a deterrent, when it is anything but. It is expensive. It adds costs to the upkeep of the death row inmate. And as stories for the past decade have highlighted, it is in many instances wrong. Innocent men and women sit on death row, staring at the ultimate penalty for a crime which they did not commit. And our very own Supreme Court has ruled that new evidence is not sufficient reason to stop an execution.

Yes, there are many times when I say “let him hang”. But then I catch myself.

I do not oppose the death penalty only out of concern for the condemned. I also oppose it out of concern for myself, and my country.

The one surety of life is death. Prolonging its arrival might be the reason why societies organize. Allowing the state to take life, however well deserved, upends that reason.

I don’t oppose the death penalty because I believe everyone on death row is innocent. Some are as guilty as the devil.

But do we pay death with death? Do we call some death unrighteous and some righteous? And how do we draw the line? Terrorists believe in their righteousness, as much as the the people. And if we execute the innocent, as we have? How is that ever made right? An innocent man or woman on death row can be exonerated. The dead are dead.

And it’s the mark of a strong civilization to say: “No, we won’t kill you. We will let you live out the rest of your days removed from society, caged, to dwell on your crimes.” Not able to enjoy the summer breeze, or to sit with loved ones in restaurants would be more of a punishment for me than to be killed. Death would be a release. Imprisonment would be the real death, prolonged for years.

I struggle to allow my better angels to lead me on this. But, as usual, they’re right.

The death penalty is no comment on the condemned. It is a comment on us.

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