11/28/2012 02:44 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

What Kind of People Might We Become if We Stopped Killing Killers?

California's death row, the nation's largest, constitutes a fourth of all awaiting execution. On election day, Proposition 34, the "End the Death Penalty" initiative, failed. Those who opposed Prop 34 wanted execution for the state's most heinous killers.

What constitutes such a killer? Perhaps Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab, a Pakistani India quietly hung in a Pune prison just before Thanksgiving. He killed 52 people during the November 2008, three day siege of Mumbai, India, that took 166 victims plus nine gunmen.

Or perhaps we could consider Anders Breivik, the worst criminal in modern Scandinavia. On July 22, 2011, Breivik blew up a car in Oslo, killing eight, then, disguised as a policeman, he headed to a summer camp on an island and coldly killed 69 teens. He, however, will never be executed.

On the morning of Aug. 24, 2012, a Norwegian court ruled Breivik sane and sentenced him to the maximum penalty: 21 years in prison. Most reporting that day focused on his self-satisfied smirk at the verdict and his apology that he failed to kill more people.

At the end of August, when I arrived in Vardø, Norway, I got an explanation of Breivik's smirk. If the state had been able to prove he was insane, Breivik would likely have spent the rest of his life in a chemically lobotomized state in a mental hospital, the closest thing to a death sentence Norway has.

The state had once ordered psychiatric specialists to ignore professional ethics and rule Knut Hamsen, a Nobel Laureate, to have "permanently impaired mental faculties" when he became a Nazi sympathizer and embarrassed King Haakon VII, who had once deemed him, "Norway's soul." This insanity verdict absolved him of treason charges, but he was committed to a mental hospital. In addition, a civil case required him to pay a $65,000 fee at a time when such a sum was exorbitant. It may be that the Norwegian state sought to do the same with Breivik, a mass murderer who raised questions about their ability to handle terrorist violence. But the panel of judges rejected overblown claims of Breivik's insanity, had him re-examined, and ruled him sane.

The sanity ruling pleased many parents of victims and survivors of the attack because Breivik would be held accountable for what he had done, and he received the maximum sentence for murder. My Norwegian friends, one a judge, Ingrid Fløtten, and another, Dagfinn Åslid, who was a fellow grad student when we both studied for our Ph.D.s in theology, thought it was a good verdict. So did many parents who lost their children and the youth who survived the attack. For example, survivor Bjorn Magnus Ihler observed:

If he is deemed not to be dangerous any more after 21 years, then he should be released. ... That's how it should work. That's staying true to our principles, and the best evidence that he hasn't changed our society."

Though I appreciate that Europe no longer has a death penalty, I found myself troubled by the possibility that Breivik might someday leave prison a free man. I was also troubled by the reality that, while in prison, he would be able to communicate with the outside world and continue his white supremacist, xenophobic rantings, possibly becoming a heroic martyr to extremists.

Sure enough, on Nov. 24, Breivik issued a 27 page letter complaining that he was being tortured and he described his three-room cell as a "mini Abu Ghraib":

Use of a toothbrush and electric shaver is always under supervision. One is therefore under mental pressure to finish quickly as the guards are tapping their feet outside the cell. ... This limits brushing to once a day and shaving to once a week in order not to have to go through the mental ordeal more often than necessary.

Of course, as long as he remains unrepentant, Breivik's sentence can be extended indefinitely, and he might never leave prison. But still I found myself troubled.

When I expressed my reservations to Dagfinn, he said he felt OK that Breivik might be released. Dagfinn, who had been reading Breivik's writings and studying his life, concluded that he was a troubled, but very intelligent man. Dagfinn thought that of he had to spend years outside the white supremacist bubble he had lived in online for years, and he received communications from people who did not share his white supremacist views, Breivik had the intelligence to change. If he did not change, he would remain in prison, but if he did change he would be released -- this, too, is a possibility if he is sane.

Dagfinn was convinced that, if Breivik did change, come to terms with what he did, regret what he had done, repent and leave prison, this would be good for Norway. A transformation of a mass murder would be better than if he remained unchanged in prison. Not giving life sentences offered a chance for rehabilitation and release, and the risk was worth the possibility of change because it would affirm the purpose of prison as rehabilitation, not punishment.

I thought about what Dagfinn said, and I realized something shifted in me in my attitude toward Breivik. I thought, if I were Norwegian, I would write to him, not letters of anger and judgment, but letters that discussed why his ideas about immigrants and socialism were wrong. I imagined parents sharing their grief with him, telling him stories of the children he killed, and survivors explaining how they were moving on and hoped he would find a way to live a better life. I realized I would try to help him change, rather than feeling glad he was put away forever. I realized my motive would be hope, not resignation or anger, and I hoped he could change enough to one day be free.

Surely, encouraging hope and change and believing that human relationships, sustained through the worst that can be imagined, is the better basis for a civilized society and world than encouraging a lust for retribution, a desire to sever any possibility for change, sorrow or regret. For those impervious to transformation, the sociopaths who cannot change, it does no harm to me if they have to live the rest of their lives in humane confinement.

A retributive response means the criminal dominates and determines a society's response, rather than the needs of victims or survivors and the humane values any decent society should uphold. As many who have lost beloved members of their families to murder who also oppose the death penalty know, killing killers severs relationships, but it rarely resolves them.

When Qasab was hanged last week, British citizen Sajjad Karim, a survivor of the attack, who spent a terrified night barricaded in the hotel basement, noted:

Mohammad Qasab's actions were repugnant and destroyed many lives. ... Executing him will not bring back all the people that he killed, and it has only made another martyr for extremists to revere. ... Having seen first hand the trail of destruction that these terrorists left behind I would have liked to see Mr Qasab locked up for life but I feel no pleasure at his death.

The world needs to learn that an eye for an eye only leads to a spiral of violence.

A transformation of the human spirit to restore moral conscience and to accept responsibility for violence supports a better society than retributive violence and punishment. While most of us never have to notice how much killing happens on our behalf, the social ethos of retribution and punishment behind the urge to execute infects much of our society and our souls. Protecting our own humanity is the best reason I know to stop killing killers.