Popular UnWisdom #2: No Better Than They Are

“If you kill people to show that killing is wrong, you are no better than they are.”


I don’t have any sort of research for this quote. I have found no source for it, but I hardly think one is necessary. Variants on “killing” include “hitting” or “doing violence.” I have heard it all my life, and I imagine that most of my audience has heard it likewise. It is frequently found on the placards and in the mouths of mothers, elementary school teachers, and activists who oppose war and the death penalty.

It’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

Let’s just examine this a little bit more closely, shall we? The death penalty is wrong because killing makes us, as a society, morally equivalent to the killers. Ah, yes, of course. That makes perfect sense. Then what, exactly, does that make our society when we lock people in prison for kidnapping? Doesn’t it make us kidnappers? What if we fine them for committing theft? Doesn’t that make us thieves? And why does the punishment have to fit the crime? If the proverb above holds, then it seems we have built a society in which justice has been confused with kidnapping people and stealing from them.

And, by the way, why do we not draw that parallel? Why is killing criminals wrong, while kidnapping them is not?

I begin to suspect that most of the moral outrage that purports to equate execution to vengeance really has very little to do with morality. Instead, it simply has to do with squeamishness, as evidenced in the debate over the death penalty itself. Dr. Jay Chapman, one of the inventors of the mix of drugs which until recently were used for lethal injection, has since repudiated his own invention, saying that the guillotine would be more humane. So why don’t we use it?

Because it would be messy. It would be ugly. We would not be able to hide behind the notion that we could clean up death. And we might have to face the fact that we live in a world where sometimes, we can’t clean it up.

It’s not that we don’t want to kill, it’s that we don’t want to deal with the mess. Or why else was there so much outrage over the way a giraffe in Denmark was recently killed? It was shot through the head, which is one of the less painful ways to go that I can imagine. And yet, some asked why the animal wasn’t euthanized by using drugs, (which of course, would have made its meat useless for consumption by the zoo’s large cats). Could it be that people were outraged simply because guns draw blood? Because that method of killing is ugly?

I have probably left some people under the impression that I am pro-death-penalty and even pro-violence. Actually, I am neither. You see, there are a host of good reasons to be against the use of the death penalty. Right now I’m against it for two reasons: Firstly, the probability of executing an innocent man under our present laws is just too high. Secondly, it seems that judges and juries have a nasty habit of condemning minorities to death at a disproportionately high rate.

But neither of those reasons is the same as making a false equivalence between a murder by individual whim and an execution by the rule of law. The difference is profound: Criminals inflict random violence on random victims. Juries and judges are supposed to inflict it after deliberation and reasoned judgment, and to do so on those who are aware that their punishment is deserved, or at least that such punishment a likely result of their own actions. It is the process, and the limits on that process, that makes all the difference. To us, this is vital. If we do not understand it — if we confuse all punishment with vengeance, and all law with whim — then we approach a mindset in which the very idea of a civil justice system is impossible. And that’s what we built to avoid being murdered by criminals.

Most crime involves the criminals inflicting some form of pain on the victims, whether that is physical, social, or financial pain. And in all the justice systems I know of, justice involves some form of society inflicting some form of pain on the criminal, as a deterrent and/or a means of protecting society from the criminal. Of course, it would be preferable to simply persuade the criminal to repent and make restitution, but few criminals will do this. And on what basis do we say that, for example, Singaporean caning is torture while American solitary confinement for years on end (and this is done) is not? The problem is not that our consciences are strong. The problem is that our stomachs are weak.

Now, I’m just waiting for someone to point out that judges and juries can and do make mistakes, or act out of fear or vengeance and therefore, my argument here is invalid. And that misses the point entirely, of course. It’s a true observation, but it’s not a counterargument. Depending on the venue, it may be a completely separate argument against the death penalty. But it’s not the same as saying that punishment is the same as vengeance, and that’s the real danger. That way lies anarchy.

From somewhere in orbit