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Death Penalty: 'Civilized' Vengeance or Biblical Contradiction?

05/16/2015 12:29 am ET | Updated May 15, 2016

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Matthew 5:38 "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'" -- Bible Gateway

Big news today: the Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has been sentenced to death. The 21-year-old man who accompanied his brother on a journey of violence and terrorism will now live out the years of his appeals process until a lethal injection is administered to end his life.

Liz Norden, whose two sons each lost a leg in the bombing, said, 'It is bittersweet... There are no winners today.' She added that she thought the death penalty was an 'appropriate sentence.' -- The Huffington Post

Certainly there are no winners. Who wins when egregious acts cause death and maiming? Who wins when families are torn apart, children lose the breadth of their lives, and idealogical incitements set cultures, religions, and governments at each other's throats? Who wins when the corrosiveness of hate demolishes any regard for the preciousness of life? Who wins when we kill to punish those who kill?

I'd argue: no one. Even Matthew continued:

"But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."

Biblical contradiction. What's a believer to believe?

There was a time when I was ambivalent about the death penalty. In the Catholic church in which I was raised, strict interpretations of the Bible were the meat of Sunday sermons, and tracts like Matthew's -- both concepts -- were repeated often enough that they became foundational pieces of my budding worldview. But as I got older I began to question the contradictions, querying the reasons behind which part of what canon was to be believed, was meant to guide and inspire me. This curiosity was not necessarily frowned upon, but it was met with patronizing mandates to "have faith" and trust in the good book. Which part, I asked? I don't remember anyone answering.

In high school I attempted to read the Bible myself rather than be fed selections by priests and nuns with agendas, and while I found it as ponderous and incomprehensible as I later found Dianetics, The Modern Science of Mental Health, or 2001, A Space Odyssey, what I did come away with was heightened awareness of its many inconsistencies. Which ultimately made the "eye for an eye" theory (amongst others) harder to either justify or defend.

History of the death penalty stretches back to the 1700s B.C., so clearly the urge for vengeance has been a part of human existence long enough to have assessed its effectiveness. And while the ease with which it is administered has been tempered over time, its morality and purpose has become a matter of deep divide in this country, particularly since its deterrent factor is negligible.

For those against the penalty, these fundamentals, as cited by the American Civil Liberties Union, are of most concern:

  • The death penalty system in the US is applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people, largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, race of the victim and where the crime took place. People of color are far more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white.
  • The death penalty is a waste of taxpayer funds and has no public safety benefit. The vast majority of law enforcement professionals surveyed agree that capital punishment does not deter violent crime; a survey of police chiefs nationwide found they rank the death penalty lowest among ways to reduce violent crime. They ranked increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy with more jobs higher than the death penalty as the best ways to reduce violence. The FBI has found the states with the death penalty have the highest murder rates.
  • Innocent people are too often sentenced to death. Since 1973, over 140 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because of innocence. Nationally, at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed. [Emphasis added.]

Yet studies show that the "eye for an eye" Biblical imperative still rules. Though the "pro" contingent has decreased since its high of 80 percent in 1994, a full 60 percent of Americans still support the death penalty, per the most recent Gallup poll. Why? Given its inequity and ineffectiveness as spelled out above, why do most Americans continue to see red?

The top five reasons as itemized by Amnesty International:

  1. 'We need to be tough on crime.'
  2. 'They did the crime, they should do the time.'
  3. 'The criminal justice system is fair.'
  4. 'It is cheaper and more humane to execute people.'
  5. 'But what about [insert horrible despot here]: surely they should be executed?'

I urge you to click over to the full piece; the details behind each statement provide a fascinating study of how we humans think.

Looking at the general disconnect between fact and feeling, it seems clear that one of the most prevalent features of death penalty support is vengeance, a point supported by Radley Balko, investigative reporter at The Huffington Post, in his 2011 piece, Why Americans Still Support The Death Penalty:

Most Americans support the death penalty out of a desire for vengeance or retribution. Some crimes, the thinking goes, are so heinous that death is the only appropriate punishment. According to Gallup, about 60 percent of death penalty supporters back capital punishment under some form of this reasoning. It's probably also the strongest argument in favor of the death penalty.

But the hunger for vengeance or retribution can also cloud judgment...

...a point Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld's Innocence Project could make many times over.

While debating this issue not long ago, a man asked me: "But how would you feel if it were your son who was murdered?" My answer? "I'd want to kill that person. But I wouldn't." Because I could not justify taking that measure into my own hands. The only time I could justify killing is in the act of self-defense or the defense of someone else. Ending another person's life as punishment is far too omnipotent an act for me as a human being to execute. Even another person who set off a bomb on a Boston street. Even if that other person's victim were, God forbid, my son.

We are a country that debates many things: a woman's right of domain over her own body, a humane immigration policy, care for our poor and needy; funding for the elderly and sick, and the causes and justifications for war. As we argue, fight, and parse with each other over these many moral issues, let's also ask ourselves why this is true:

The United States was the only country in the Americas to carry out executions in 2015. The United States carries out more executions than any other liberal democracy (as defined by Freedom House) in the world.

The pain of loss, the grief of death, the anger of crime, the desire for revenge are all understandable human incentives. But executing another person does not truly assuage loss, abate grief, deter crime, or satisfy vengeance. It is just more violence.

It's 2015. We are a civilized nation. Let's rethink.

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2015-03-24-1427183048-6439243-HLfrontcover_sm.jpg Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Rock+Paper+Music. Access details and links to her other work at www.lorrainedevonwilke.com, and her novels, AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCH and HYSTERICAL LOVE at her author pages at both @ Amazon and Smashwords. Watch her book trailer for AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCH here, and be sure to follow her adventures in independent publishing at her book blog, AfterTheSuckerPunch.com.

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