For those of us lean toward Conservatism due to respect for its values rather than political expediency, two things happened in the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night at the Reagan library that merit criticism. The first was Michele Bachman's condemnation of the American military action in Libya as serving no vital American interest, as if the greatest power on earth should turn a blind eye to a dictator using his air force to bomb his own people.
The second is even more noteworthy.
It was Brian Williams, rather than any Republican candidate, who received the most applause at the debate when he asked Governor Rick Perry of Texas whether, having overseen the execution of 234 inmates found guilty of murder, he slept soundly at night. Half way through the question there was a spontaneous burst of applause when Williams mentioned the large number, a fact that Williams followed up with in his next question to the governor.
The question of whether people found guilty of murder should incur the death penalty -- a position I support -- is entirely different to whether we should be happy and celebrate. There is something utterly unseemly about a group of influential audience spectators at a nationally televised debate giving three cheers for human beings being put to death.
Nothing is more serious than a society deciding that it has no choice but to take life in order to protect life. It is an undertaking that demands extreme sobriety and temperance.
Most people acknowledge only two moral categories, the good and the bad. In truth there is a third category, neither good nor bad, but necessary. Putting people to death is never good, it is almost always bad, but it is sometimes necessary. Capital punishment is firmly in this third category. Like war, divorce, or chemotherapy, its necessity never deserves to be celebrated.
Condemning public exuberance over capital punishment does not lessen our strong commitment to law and order. To the contrary, it reinforces our sensitivity to the infinite value of human life and the pain we feel when a life is forfeit due to unspeakable evil. We take life not to degrade it but to protect it. We do so against our will, wishing fully that the murderer would never have acted in a manner that forces us to take what Governor Perry rightly labeled 'the ultimate judgment.'
The same Bible that declares, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man," (Gen. 9:6) also declares, "Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth." (Prov. 24:17)
In discussing capital punishment, the Bible says, "And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree. His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God. (Duet. 21:22-23) Why must the body of a criminal be removed from the tree where he is hung? Because human beings are created in the image of G-d, and it is an affront to G-d to defile the corpse of even a hardened criminal.
The spontaneous celebrations that greeted the death of Osama bin Laden outside the White House and in Times Square somehow overlooked the tragic fact that that the death of nearly 3000 innocent victims necessitated his killing. Bin Laden had to be eliminated so that his evil could be neutralized. But that did not undo the sense of bereavement, suffering, and loss experienced by the families of 9/11 until today, and one is hard pressed to imagine that champagne bottles rather their loved ones were on their minds when they heard the comforting news.
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 73 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. This loss of confidence is due primarily to an erosion of values. We have become a nation that is replacing hard work with government handouts, personal responsibility with collective intrusion, thrift with borrowing, and a spiritual belief in our manifest destiny with a shallow lust for material indulgence. We have become consumers rather than workers. And if the Republicans are serious about restoring American luster they must demonstrate that they are a party of values, believing in justice rather than vengeance and the infinite value of human life over the shrill clamor for the hangman's noose. And because human life is infinitely precious, it must be protected with the most serious of all statements, that those who take life have forfeited their right to further bloody G-d's green earth.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network, and will shortly publish "Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself". Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
Follow Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RabbiShmuley