By: Paul Murano
The terms capital punishment and decapitate come from the same Latin word for regarding the head.
Although the death penalty was often the removal of one’s head, there have been other ways of administering it throughout history. Socrates was poisoned, Stephen was stoned, and Jesus was crucified; representing the Greek, Jewish and Roman methods in antiquity. Historically it was given to those seen as causing instability to the status quo or corruption to the people.
But why do we have it today? If you asked people on the street you would probably get emotional responses like… For the sake of the victim’s family, or They don’t deserve to live, or I don’t want them to breathe the same air I breathe. But should the state act out of anger or vengeance? The deterrence argument has evidence on both sides and the justice argument of an eye for an eye lacks credibility; that principle of justice would demand that killers be killed, rapists be raped, thieves be burglarized, slanderers be defamed, etc. Is this how punishment should be meted out? At this point two questions need to be asked:
a. What is the purpose of punishment?
b. Does a cold-blooded killer deserve to live?
To answer the second one first, perhaps not. Equal justice demands a murderer’s death. But does perfect justice always demand equal justice? As mentioned above, that would be impractical and absurd. And where would each of us be today if we got exactly what we deserved throughout our lives? The role of an authority figure, whether it be a parent or the state, is to administer with prudence the appropriate punishment that would bring about maximum benefit for the individual and community.
The purpose of punishment, therefore, is to redress the disorder caused by the act, ensuring security for the community and an opportunity to change for the perpetrator. The idea of correction seeks this end; keeping in mind that change of heart does not necessarily translate into rehabilitation. Healing from habitual compulsion can take a lifetime, and such penance should be lived separated from the innocent. Natural law demands that authority keep the innocent safe from an unjust aggressor, and this principle of legitimate defense could include a fatal blow is necessary – but only if excessive force is avoided and killing the aggressor is not intended. And this brings us to the most important question of the debate: Is the death penalty necessary to protect the innocent?
There are legitimate arguments on both sides of this question, but it seems most reasonable to conclude that in this society, and in most (if not all) others of the 21st century, we have the means to protect the innocent without resorting to killing. Yes, in the past murderers have killed after parole as well as fellow inmates while in prison, but these rare instances are a result of a lack of political will to deal correctly with the problem. We have allowed the debate to crystallize into two extremes: The liberal attitude is to parole killers as soon as possible while the conservative position is to kill them as soon as possible. Both are wrong and are led by emotion rather than reason. We have the means to keep citizens safe from dangerous killers; all we need is the will.
The issue of capital punishment will never be in same the category as abortion or euthanasia, which are moral absolutes because one can never intentionally kill an innocent human being. There you have the direct killing of the innocent, the defenseless unborn and elderly, and it is always under any circumstance morally forbidden. But with the capital punishment there is no direct killing of the innocent; rather, it is a matter of keeping the innocent citizenry safe from an unjust aggressor. This means the death penalty is at least theoretically permissible where legitimate defense would necessitate it. Whether such a place actually exists on earth is another question.
Therefore to summarize, these final two questions can bring us to a satisfactory conclusion:
a. Can we keep the innocent safe from a dangerous criminal? Not do we, but can we?
b. In a culture that regularly kills its preborn offspring and is about to turn on its elderly, does more legal killing further send a message that killing people is a legitimate answer to problems?
The answer to both of these questions is Yes — therefore capital punishment is wrong.
Paul Murano taught theology and philosophy at Assumption College and Northshore Com. College. He is also a co-host of The Paying Attention! radio program on WCAP and Host “Beneath the Surface” on Burlington Cable Access. You can E-mail Paul at PJDM@aol.com