Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Capital Punishment

First Things usually seems to walk a fine line when it comes to the death penalty. As good Catholics, they can't ignore the Holy See's opposition to it, yet First Things' conservative and educated readership requires more than the Pontiff's say-so. I remember the Seventies, when liberals had just about succeeded in decriminalizing crime, and the death penalty was re-instated after several years' absence and no end of unraveling of the social fabric due to runaway violent crime. So it'll take more than a few hits off the ol' Kum Bah Yah hookah to get me all moist and sniffly at the thought of murderers being executed.

So this time,here comes J. Bottum, who is always a thought-provoking essayist, to convince us of the need to abolish capital punishment. He insists on its essential otherness:

Capital punishment may occasionally be necessary in a modern democracy, but it is never right, for the death penalty is not in a line with other punishments. A five-year sentence and a twenty-year sentence, even a life sentence, are related as more or less severe forms of imprisonment. Execution belongs to another order of punishment.

And he touches base with the authority of government, the divine right of kings, the Marquis de Sade(!), Voltaire, and settles on the irreducible atavism of the death penalty:
If Jesus Christ “sheds light on the meaning of life and the death of every human being,” we can see in that light both how blood demands repayment and how Jesus has forever done the re paying with his death. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II holds to a delicate line. This is not necessarily a full-blown Anselmian theory of atonement, but it is at least a recognition that two elements in the Cain and Abel story are vital for Christians: the genuine truth that spilled blood calls for justice, and the refusal to demand that this blood-debt be paid with yet more blood.

To leave the argument against the death penalty in the hands of those who no longer much believe this Christian story is dangerous. The people who think there is no such thing as a blood-debt are always surprised to see crowds outside penitentiaries where executions are about to take place, chanting for the execution. But those crowds appear at executions in the United States for a reason—because blood really does cry out from the ground. “He didn’t suffer as much” as his victims, one bereaved parent objected at Michael Ross’ death. Without the Christian revelation to restrain it, the sense of a blood-debt that must be paid will only grow.

So, essentially, society might become too fond of the death penalty. Well, back in the Eighties, during the first crack cocaine epidemic, we did have some short-sighted solons calling for capital punishment for dealers in drugs above a certain amount. Fortunately, we got hold of ourselves before any such laws could be enacted, SFAIK.

Pope John Paul II, who is cited in the article, certainly deserves a careful hearing on the matter. We'll be decades unpacking a lot of his thought, from his encyclicals. And he was not dismissive of the idea of temporal justice. John Paul forgave his would-be assassin--but he didn't ask for him to be let out of jail. Yet it strikes me that doing away with capital punishment for the foulest capital crimes is a bit like pacifism. Pacifism is a private decision; it isn't for the state to leave its citizens undefended out of idealism. Maybe it's just a half-baked analogy, but I can't help feeling that there's some parallel there with the death penalty.

Bottum's argument comes in the end to simply: WWJD. He mentions "cosmic justice", which is shorthand for striving to put things that are out of our control right. We can't free the zeks in Stalin's gulags; we can't rescue the slaves drowned in the Middle Passage; and we can't undo the hideously bloody Islamic conquest of India. More to the point, we can't punish those who were responsible for those horrors. That's being unable to achieve cosmic justice, not declining to execute a murderer. Bottum's right, "You shall not stand idly by your brother's blood" is a powerful call to the instincts. Maybe that's because there's something to it besides a mere urge to vengeance.

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