Over the course of my existence I have considered the field of possible positions on capital punishment. Using the term “capital punishment” somewhat limits the scope of the topic I intend to write about. I mean in a general sense all forms of state-sanctioned killing: executions and extra-judicial killings of convicted criminals (incorrigible or otherwise condemned) and of “enemies of the state.” As I point out under the topic “Sovereign and Sacred Life” in my entry on First Principles and Convictions, I consider any “community” to be a form of the “state,” not just a government. It follows that any collective, a political group, a gang, a neighborhood, a mob, even a family, that as a body claims the right to kill a human for any given reason, acts as the state for purposes of this article.
This question arises in discussions about appropriate penalties for particularly terrible crimes such as murder and rape, or effective deterrents against such offenses (adding crimes of treason in such considerations), or pragmatic solutions to serial recidivism in egregious cases.
Such discussions can be and often are widened into generalities about application of death penalty to whole groups, whether they are criminals, or likely to be, or otherwise considered to be dangerous. In this post, I will not address the topic of unjust killing under tyranny, which is a type of war wherein state wars against its people, since the only response is either defense or capitulation.
I have already stated in my post Obligatory Disavowals under the topic of violence, that I reject aggression, and furthermore that I reject vengeance. (For clarification, note that I clearly differentiate defense from aggression, regardless of similarities observed between those two actions.) In this context and in the context of my stated first principle of the sovereignty and sacredness of all beings, I oppose all forms of state-sponsored, mob-induced, or personal grievance aggression against anyone for any reason — obviously this includes capital punishment against criminals for any purpose, whether for retribution or for practicality.
This introductory passage then simply states my position and the philosophical line of reasoning that supports it. To leave it there, however, does not complete my thoughts on the matter, which are more complicated and nuanced than a flat statement of opposition.
Perhaps it is obvious that retribution, punishment, and justice are each discreet matters that only intersect in response to grievance. Yet these different responses often tangle together, so that that deliberation of resolution of an offense is muddled, where revenge is mistaken for penalty and so the application of justice is unclear.
I have mentioned in prior writings that systems of justice may have been devised in large part to resolve the spiraling madness of blood-debt in a society. Such a system that inevitably presides over decisions about the morality of taking a life must therefore also consider its own morality in the question of the sentence of death upon the guilty so judged. I say it must, but I know that not all involved do, realizing that among judges, as among all people, killing is not always the most difficult decision. Nevertheless, the basic logic is that if murder is unconscionable, and if it is possible that execution falls in the same moral category as murder, then capital punishment may be immoral. Personally, I believe so.
Morality aside, the pragmatic argument against the death penalty is that such power conferred to the state may be misused. Historically, it is easily proven that the state (again: government, gang, company, church, family, or mob) eventually misapplies its power to kill either out of ignorance or corruption. If any system of justice can be inverted and become unjustly murderous, then all who fall under its jurisdiction are vulnerable to the same deadly caprice or malice. The only possible way to remedy this is to preemptively and entirely remove such power from the state.
Final Solution Fallacies
Further examination of the practical question leads to consideration of effects of expedience and efficacy, and of deterrence regarding the death penalty.
Barring a robust system of appeals and executive clemency that delay death sentences, it seems likely that execution would be a cheaper resolution than lifelong imprisonment, and further it lessens the possibility that the offender might by unforeseen means one day evade the penalty altogether. In a society such as the USA, appeals and pardons are available to the convicted due to a commitment to the rigor of Constitutional doctrines of due process, equal treatment under the law, judicial review, executive powers, and prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and also due in some significant part to a cultural revulsion against unjust prosecution. While expedited execution might make it more efficient than incarceration, it would require the curtailment and/or removal of such lawful recourse that the wrongly convicted innocent might avail themselves. To value the efficiency of killing over justice for the wrongly condemned is absolute injustice and therefore unacceptable.
The question of deterrence, that fear of a death sentence is a way to prevent potential criminals from committing crime, is a justification fraught with problems. In the case of the most egregious crimes that seem obvious candidates for death sentencing, an appeal to such reasoning is often completely out of the question. In violent crimes of passion or abject perversion and insanity, and in organized crime killings or premeditated murder, consequences are almost always an afterthought where the perpetrator either does not care or does not expect to be caught or both. The most effective use of the death penalty as deterrent would most likely be applied to crimes undeserving of such an extreme measure — once again making its application, while effective, inherently unjust and abhorrent.
I don’t expect my arguments against claims of expedience, efficacy, and deterrence to be absolute. My point is to expose obvious weaknesses in such claims. My primary position supersedes that discussion on grounds of first principles which affirm inviolability of the sacred and sovereign individual, and is therefore morally unassailable.
Vengeance is the Lord’s
It does seem natural to desire to exact the greatest price from a criminal in answer for the imposition of inflicted pain. The greater the wrong, the greater the indignation. As the “natural” reaction, it is my opinion that vengeance is the basic response of a dumb brute — of a human in the fallen state, if one prefers.
As cited above, I have already stated my rejection of revenge and I only revisit this concept once more to reiterate that my opposition is absolute. In my view, the greater the wrong, the greater the need for forgiveness. This is the bedrock of Christianity, without which all pretense to Jesus’ way is false. Forgiveness is a deep subject probably more central to this meditation than these few words I will afford in this writing. Forgiveness is the Keystone is an entry dedicated to my thoughts on forgiveness.
It is central to this part of the discussion, however, to dispense with the argument that to forgive an offender means that the offender should be set free on general principle. No. Forgiveness is the spiritual practice of an individual within the context of our war of good against evil; forgiveness is not even possible within the context of a society. When I forgive my enemy, I must still defend myself against harm. A society’s system of justice exists as part of that defense: to prevent aggression. When threat of penalty is not enough to deter, then the penalty must be applied or deterrence will fail utterly.
There is another matter one might add that I must exclude as out of scope, and that is the question of rehabilitation of the guilty. Since my focus here is on the death penalty, justice, and the morality of vengeance, the question of whether a given criminal is capable of or deserving of an opportunity to rehabilitate, whether to be able to rejoin society or simply to come to a spiritual reckoning, is beyond my consideration — not only in this writing but in general. In the spiritual Christian sense, all sinners may claim God’s salvation; but as a practical societal question, not so much.
In this line of reasoning, penalties for crimes are solely the full measure of deterrence, whether administered by an individual or by the state. Again, as stated, I don’t recognize penalties as valid applications of retribution, rejecting as I do all vengeance in all cases. However, threat of retribution may be an effective deterrence, especially at the individual level.
Wood Chippers, Sun Yeeting, and Standing Out of the Way
I am reminded of the cases of Gary Plauché (1984, USA) and Marianne Bachmeier (1981, Germany), vigilantes whose lethal acts of revenge were caught on camera as they publicly gunned down the respective men who had hurt their children (accused of kidnapping and rape in the former case, and confessed to rape and murder in the latter). The veneer of righteousness of an aggrieved parent weighs mightily against any rebuke on moral grounds. Indeed, as a parent, my own convictions very well might be shaken in a similar situation.
Cases such as Plauché’s and Bachmeier’s are highly relevant today as we are faced with escalating public conversations about crimes of pedophilia and of treason. On some of my favorite online news commentary outlets I frequently hear and read gleeful calls for offenders to be hanged, to be jammed through wood chippers, to be “yeeted into the sun,” to be electrocuted, gassed, or lined up against the wall and shot. I note that many advocates of such penalties admit they are not victims themselves, and only a few concede necessity for a fair trial. As for forgiveness, that is explicitly excluded from consideration. Revenge is their only option.
Conversely, I have witnessed uninvolved observers of a grievous criminal matter complain when a victim’s family expresses forgiveness for the perpetrator — bitter third-party armchair prosecutors who somehow know better and more intimately that the offender ought to receive absolute condemnation, rather than whatever form of forgiveness is found in the hearts of those most profoundly affected by the crime. I admit it is likely that such forgiveness is actually quite rare and divinely inspired.
I have never before written about, nor even spoken directly to anyone ever, about my own experience as a victim of child molestation. Nor do I think it will be helpful to describe the circumstances, except to add that there was nothing anyone could have done to protect me from it. I might describe it as an attack by the devil himself. My purpose in mentioning it now, in this particular article, is to explain that in no way do I desire revenge upon those who attacked me. I don’t wish to track them down and make them pay in any way. I do not have to justify how this experience affected me. As a victim, I have no obligation in the matter whatsoever — certainly not to those who imagine themselves as righteous avengers. This is the truth, and I suspect that many victims share such sentiments: I do not wish to relive trauma on the behalf of uninvolved, would-be vigilantes who have no better thing to do than fantasize self-righteous violence. For those who don’t know me, who are offended on my behalf, who would pledge to take up my cause and exact vengeance upon the ones who hurt me from body to soul, I am not grateful. I do not want, nor do I need your help. I do not respect your anger.
I admit that yet other victims may have the opposite view, that they yearn for revenge. I wonder what peace, if any, will be granted when the deed is done?
In individual cases such as Plauché and Bachmeier, I think one can only stay out of their way. They are the victims, and whether or not their revenge serves them well is between them and God. I suppose if one were to ask me, I might seek to dissuade them, not out of mercy for the guilty but mercy for themselves, knowing that nothing could change what had already happened to their child, that revenge cannot erase the bitterly cold fact that they were unable to help in their child’s gravest hour of need. But I would not try to stop them.
As for the state, the mob, the gang, or family, that seeks retribution on behalf of another, I again stand opposed even as I stand out of the way. I don’t find value in attempting to impose my morality on any group or organization when it takes all my strength and resolve just to govern myself.
What would my solution be, my alternative to the death penalty? Life in prison. Perhaps thorough de-personing through permanent legal removal of identity and rights. Exile. I remain circumspect on how we define “cruel and unusual punishment.” These are not easy questions to answer. But if I throw up my hands and resort to killing, I put myself in place of God. That aint right.