We slaughter the innocent and guilty alike in the United States. As parents, we teach our children that killing is wrong then send them off to war and celebrate when an alleged criminal is put to death. That kind of dichotomy in our thinking is not only wrong, it is barbaric and archaic. People in this country like to hold ourselves up as exceptional, the moral compass for the world. The reality is that we are guilty of the same atrocities we rage against. In this case, it happens to be the death penalty.
A jury has sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death in the Boston Marathon Bombing case. Though there is little doubt he is guilty, his conviction reignites the debate over use of the death penalty in the United States. Proponents of capital punishment will argue justice, the Bible, cost effectiveness, deterrence and a myriad of other reasons to use it. None stand up to actual scrutiny, and have been debunked over and over again. Yet, somehow, people are celebrating his death. The blood lust is so strong that I've seen statuses on Facebook requesting an audience at the execution or a Pay Per View opportunity.
Point out the fallacy of capital punishment and the first thing you generally hear is, of course: "what if it had been your wifesondaughterhusband?" First, thank goodness I'm not knowingly related to any of those poor folks. I feel for you, all of you. I'm terribly sorry for your loss and your pain. I am. I mourn any loss of human life and any needless violence. Second, emotion does not belong in the argument.
As humans, emotions are both our greatest strength and a terrible weakness. Empathy, compassion, happiness and love make us who we are. They, along with our intellect, have allowed us to build civilizations and push forward. As a people we have risen to heights unimaginable just a few centuries ago. On the other side of the equation however sits our anger, sadness, jealousy, envy and despair. Despite our advances, these emotions hold us back and force us into decisions we'd normally abandon. We are a product of our inability to control our emotions.
"I believe [...] that while all human life is sacred there's nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system."
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
"An eye for an eye, are you even familiar with the Bible?" I saw that on a social media site today justifying the use of the death penalty. Never mind the indisputable fact that we are not nor have we ever been a christian nation. If we are to use the Bible as a means of supporting capital punishment, shouldn't there be more to it? Doesn't Matthew 5:38-48 preach exactly the opposite? Haven't we shown over and over again how the sheer economic expense of capital punishment outweighs the benefit? Should we be grouped with Iran, China, North Korea and Yemen and be proud of it (the top five countries for the death penalty)? How many studies do we need showing an utter lack of deterrence before we stop using that argument? It really does all come down to one thing: Emotion.
We have by and large abandoned logic in many parts of our governance. Climate change, education, economic policy, and criminal justice reform have all stalled our government. We make no progress while arguing over the benefits of different points of view. Somehow, we refuse to listen to the experts. We ignore the very people whose livelihoods depend upon studying the very things holding us back. When will we wake up and trust the professionals instead of demanding that all opinions be respected and heard regardless of their factual basis.
We execute innocent people. Unfortunately, this is an inescapable fact. Study after study concludes that we condemn innocent men and women to die for crimes they did not commit. In light of those facts, shouldn't we suspend this barbaric practice? When does the killing of innocents progress from a mistake to state sanctioned murder?
"Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat." Translated, this becomes "the burden of proof is on he who declares, not he who denies." This is the very foundation of our entire justice system. Everything else springs from this singular notion. We are innocent until proven guilty. In that light, and knowing that we engage in state sanctioned killing of innocent lives, should we not suspend the practice indefinitely?
Lets put that aside. We'll set aside the facts, the arguments and everything else that makes the debate so divisive. Here it is in plain language. If we tell our children that all lives are sacred and that forgiveness should be practiced not just preached, should we not also act on that as well? Our law is supposed to built upon logic, devoid of emotion. Right and wrong, black and white. We leave room for gray areas sure, but they involve self defense, mental defect and the ability to differentiate right from wrong.
"We condemn the bombings that took place in Boston two years ago, and we mourn the loss of life and grave injuries they caused. The death penalty, however, is not justice. It will only compound the violence, and it will not deter others from committing similar crimes in the future.
It is outrageous that the federal government imposes this cruel and inhuman punishment, particularly when the people of Massachusetts have abolished it in their state. As death sentences decline worldwide, no government can claim to be a leader in human rights when it sentences its prisoners to death."-Stephen W. Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International, USA.
Our continual use and practice of the death penalty shames us at home and across the globe. We let our emotion stand in the way of logic and it hurts us. Thousands currently sit on death row, many of them innocent. They sit in their cells setting in motion appeal after appeal in an effort to save their own lives. There are no crimes deserving of death. When we remove anger and revenge from the picture we are left with the true meaning of a criminal justice system. Balancing the safety of the public with the fundamental right of all beings to live.
No, I don't believe young Dzhokhar deserves to die. We'll have ended a young life and created a martyr for his cause. Frankly, I do not believe in life in prison either. Before people can change, there must be a reason to do so. Life in prison provides no incentive for positive change and no proof of a safer society. Through the evolution of our domestic and foreign policy our country has created many of the Dzhokhars of the world. We have turned them into warriors for their cause, in effect giving birth to them directly. Should we then turn our back on our own children and slaughter them? The impetus is on us to take the first step and make the change.
This article first appeared at The Good Men Project