Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.
For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
My teenage obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien affected me in a great number of ways, not all of them positive. The above quote, however, had an impact on my thinking on a scale that I can’t attribute to very many moments in literature. As I’ve been reading about Troy Davis over the last few days it’s been in my thoughts again.
Capital punishment is an issue on which I can’t see that there are two sides. To believe that our courts have a capacity to determine whether a person deserves to die is an unthinkable statement of hubris.* Life and death, why they happen and whether we “deserve” either are the great philosophical, theological and moral questions of history, to which will never have the answers. That’s because none of us can ever be external to the questions. When the state takes ownership of these issues it grossly oversteps its bounds. It claims possession of life by the fact that it can take life away. It denies the most central freedom of the citizen. To have full ownership of the self.
The people who dole out this justice are as ignorant as the rest of us when it comes to death, its realities and what happens afterwards. All they know is that people are terrified by death. So, when there seems to be a particular need for vengeance, death seems a fitting punishment and vague soundbites like ” facing the ultimate justice” seem to mean something. However, we’ve got to recognise that they can never actually assess the proportionality or justness of capital punishment, because its impact is unknown. The urge to kill is primitive and irrational and our should be better than that. Thankfully, most of them are, though sections of society in the United States remain defiant in their bloodthirstiness, as disturbingly shown at the recent Republican debate, when the audience cheered when it was announced that Governor Perry has executed 234 death row inmates. The Governor, happily for him, has never lost any sleep over the fear that those people might have been innocent, because there is a “thoughtful” appeals process. The case of Troy Davis would suggest that it isn’t thoughtful enough, the work of the Innocence Project would suggest the same, the fact of human and judicial fallibility would insist upon the same. Unquestionably,people who didn’t commit the crimes they were convicted of get killed because of them.
Now, while it’s especially unjust to execute someone on false grounds, I actually believe that all 234 of Perry’s victims were innocent. Not innocent of crime necessarily, but certainly innocent of crimes that deserve death. This is where I differ from Gandalf, over time I have come to believe that it’s impossible to “deserve death”. If we let ourselves believe that people deserve it, we let ourselves believe that a life can become worthless. That someone can undertake an action that removes our obligation for empathy, that allows us to stop seeing them as fully human. The most terrible criminals, while obviously reprehensible, are disordered individuals who don’t have access to that which most of us feel makes life worthwhile. It’s difficult to articulate, so as a loose and inadequate description I’m call it goodness. The possibility, however remote, that someone who lacks that meaning may someday find it is worth a very great deal. With the death penalty we cut off a person’s life and in in the process take their opportunity to have that life defined by something other than their crime.
Like many others, I’m frequently shocked by the fact that in the United States many of the most fervent supporters of the death penalty are also those who most fervently claim to be Christians. In its pure form, I think that Christianity’s teachings on forgiveness are among the most positive and powerful messages in history. When all of our instincts scream against it and still we force ourselves to be compassionate, surely we’re better for it. Troy Davis will almost certainly be killed later today, and we will be worse for it.
* I came across Aristotle’s definition of ‘hubris’ this morning: a crime committed by any man who gets his thrills by trampling on other people, and feeling as he does so, that he is proving himself pre-eminent. -Rhetoric 2.2.6.