Friday, November 05, 2010

Why Do We Kill People Who Kill People?

I'm thinking about the death penalty and have been for weeks.

I don't know why this is so, I only know that it is. And then my most recent issue of Utne Reader magazine was delivered. After letting it sit on the kitchen table with approximately 237 other items that don't belong there for about a week, I opened it one afternoon while eating lunch. And there before me lay not one but two articles on capital punishment. OK, Universe. I'm listening.

I am not superstitious, but I do take this as a sign that I am supposed to be thinking about this topic. So I finally let it take hold of my mind. While preparing dinner, I'm thinking about state-sanctioned murder. While folding laundry, my thoughts turn to parents of victims and criminals alike. While soaking in a hot bubble bath, I close my eyes and wonder why.

Why, if capital punishment is justice served, do I struggle with it so?

On the days I entertain the idea that maybe society has legitimate use for the death penalty, I am focused on the idea of punishment. If someone takes the life of someone else, he should pay a price. I was raised in a home that was big on retribution. If we kids did something we shouldn't, we would be punished. That usually meant some form of physical pain. And as I would hide in my closet listening to my sister scream as our dad hit her, my little mind would wonder how this was helping my sis in any way. Oh, that's right. It wasn't supposed to help her. It was supposed to "teach her a lesson." Huh. Some lesson: If you do something you shouldn't, the people who claim to love you will hurt you.

We are a society that loves its retribution, though. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne fell in love with a minister and when their love became physical, she was outcast and forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her breast, just in case the neighbors didn't already realize she was an adulterer. And what punishment was served up to her lover? Nothing. That's because punishment is never fair, and that includes the death penalty. It is applied somewhat arbitrarily, to people who are not always guilty. And so innocent people are put to death. Which means instead of one innocent victim of a crime, there are two.

How is that justice?

The logical part of me then considers the cost of life imprisonment. We like to think that it's cheaper to just kill someone rather than pay to let them live out their lives in prison. But that's not reality. The reality of capital punishment in this country is that it costs 2 to 5 times more to execute someone than it does to keep him alive. This is due to the numerous appeals and legal processes involved. It's a criminal waste of money and resources in and of itself.

I might actually be able to justify a judiciously imposed death penalty if it did, in fact, serve as a deterrent to would-be murderers. But there is no evidence that it does and plenty of research to suggest that it doesn't come close to serving that purpose. In fact, since 1990, the murder rate in states that inflict the death penalty has been consistently higher than in those that don't (according to the FBI and census figures). That means the death penalty has the opposite effect as intended. 'Nuff said.

There is, of course, the "eye for an eye" argument as bolstered by that bestseller, the Holy Bible. I don't buy into that logic for a minute. Even as a child, that seemed suspicious to me. I've read many accounts of families of murder victims who did not experience the relief or sense of closure they expected to upon the death of the person allegedly responsible for killing their loved ones. And here's where I try to truly imagine how I would feel if someone took the life of one of my kids. Would I want that person to die? Would that make me feel better, or somehow repay my child? The answer I always come back to is No. And it may very well tarnish every memory I have of that beloved child because I would never be able to separate in my mind my child from his or her murderer.

I can't help but wonder, too, why we don't televise state-sanctioned murder if it's really a good thing. If we truly believe in its innate usefulness and righteousness, let's put it out there for all the world to see. But no, we limit the viewing audience and do it behind locked doors. That alone gives me pause.

I understand that we are human and therefore subject to feelings of hatred and desire for revenge. But that same humanness also makes us inherently compassionate, even if we sometimes quell that trait in favor of something we deem more valuable or worthy. I don't have an answer. I only have intuition and gut responses. I have intelligence and the ability to reason and follow logic. I guess, at the end of the day, that's what we all have to do.

Sometimes, I let my heart lead me. Other times, I obey my brain. But here, in the case of capital punishment, I have to call on both and listen very closely to their responses. And then I have to decide for myself what I believe is just. I think we all must do that.

Perhaps Dante said it best when he wrote, "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."

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