One year ago today, they executed the D.C. Sniper, John Allen Muhammad. I don't feel any better. In fact, I feel worse.
Sometime down the road they'll probably execute the guy who shot up Ft. Hood. They executed Tim McVeigh. Do you feel better? You shouldn't.
Murder is a barbaric act. Sometimes as a society, in the name of self-defense (think World War II) we are forced to kill. It doesn't make murdering others any less barbaric. It is, however, necessary if you want to live. But execution? Where's the necessity in that? Nothing could be more inhuman. There is no stronger evidence that we haven't yet branched all that far away from the chimpanzees.
If you're looking for proof that executions impact crime, don't bother. There is simply not enough evidence either way to demonstrate that executing criminals makes our society safer. You can argue that at least it makes us safe from that one criminal but so does locking him up in a prison and throwing away the key. Why should we spend all that money to keep him alive in prison, you may ask? Because killing him should not be an option.
The Argument Against
To be sure, there are strong arguments against execution. Some of the most obvious are that sometimes innocent people are sentenced to death and the arbitrary manner in which some are selected for death and others get a pass. Race, wealth and locality all affect whether or not someone gets the needle. Justice is certainly not blind nor is it equal. But, these aren't my arguments against capital punishment. I prefer this one -- being human.
The human race has come a long way in just a few thousand years. There was a time when armies would invade towns, murder or enslave all the men, rape the women and abduct or kill the children. Heads would be lopped off and put on spikes at the entrance to the village. On occasion we are confronted with a modern version of such barbarism employed by a murderous leader like Hitler or Pol Pot or Stalin. But today we view these men as deranged. Less than a few thousand years ago, their behavior would have been frighteningly normal.
Executions have come a long way too. We used to tie people to a stake and set it on fire. Only a few hundred years ago, we would hang people just a little, then, still alive, tie them to a board, cut their intestines out and cut their genitals off, and finally, behead them. And the village would come out to watch. Strapping someone to a gurney and sticking a needle in their arm is certainly an "improvement."
But, as far as we've come, we are still barely out of the cave when we act out our revenge by having the state murder someone.
You may ask, how would I feel if a criminal murdered someone I love or in some other way caused me severe injury? Here's how I would feel. I would probably want them dead. Probably. But that doesn't make it the right thing to do. Our brains seem to have the capacity for both civilized and "neanderthal" behavior. Our "neanderthal" instinct seeks revenge. It's understandable that we have those thoughts. We are, after all, animals. But, we don't have to give in to them. We are high functioning animals. If we are ever to consider our society to be truly civilized, we should stop giving in to our baser instincts.
Am I a bleeding heart? Do I justify the behavior of psychopaths? Did I want to coddle the DC Sniper? The answer is simple. I don't care about the sniper, or any other such crazy person. He's the lowest of the low and, yes, he should be punished. But I don't care about his needs. I care about mine. And my need is to be human. And, to be an advanced human, I need to oppose state inflicted murder. Execution is wrong. The state should not be in the murder business. It diminishes us all.
Update - A day after I published the article above, this story broke - DNA test casts doubt on executed Texas man's guilt