Sunday, 16 September 2012

The reaper wields a gavel, not a scythe

What do you think about the death penalty? This is something I have personally been on the fence about, because I have two equally strong but diametrically opposed reactions to it.

Emotionally, I have an extremely strong reaction to the abhorrent, objectively evil actions of some people. Sometimes, I *want* a particular criminal to face punishment for the things he or she has done. Not just justice – punishment.

Take the case of a man who raped two of his daughters over a total period of more than 25 years, fathering nine children by them – not even counting the additional 10 miscarriages between the two of them.

The actions of this man are so vile, so unredeemably sickening, that the very fact of his existence is offensive to me. And my emotional response to him is that, yes, I truly feel as though the death penalty is the closest thing to justice that could ever be served. Instead, he received life in prison.

But I also have an intellectual response to the question. In a powerful talk by Bryan Stevenson, he accurately makes the case that an individual is not the sum of their worst mistakes. Yet in the justice system, we are forced to look at an individual as though they can and should be summarized by a single action.

Yes, in recent history the justice system has made great strides to consider a person’s history and context, but it is impossible to ever fully eliminate this emotional bias from a person’s sentencing.

Another good example would be someone like Anders Breivik from Norway, who murdered 77 people including children and teenagers and showed no signs of remorse throughout the entire trial. This is a man that, to be blunt, I feel should be put down.

But he’s a human being. A human that took the lives of others, but a human nevertheless and still deserving of basic human dignity, including the right to life. He was defined by this one, abhorrent action – but he is not that action. He did not spring into existence on the day he became a mass murderer. He had a history, a past.

And ultimately, can I still say then that he deserves the death penalty? I don’t know. I do know he’s an extreme case, and if he were tried in Texas, the result would be a no-brainer. But there are other examples that are far less cut-and-dry. And should these people be judged – irrevocably by terminating their existence – for their single actions?

I don’t know.

Removing some people from society is sometimes a necessity, but that’s not really a case for the death penalty. The only real reason I can think of to allow the death penalty is to serve some idealistic – and highly emotional – form of justice.

As an atheist, I’m particularly drawn towards this, because I do not believe in universal justice; justice is at its best created and maintained by humans, and will not exist without constant support and application. But justice can take many forms and need not include the death penalty.

So the question is, can I reasonably support something like the death penalty on purely emotional grounds? I dare say I cannot; and yet, as I’m sure many of you also are aware, disassociating myself from my extremely powerful emotional reaction to an event and allowing my intellectual reasoning to take precedence is not an easy feat to achieve.

What do you think?

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