The Death Penalty

Time to send some kudos over to my former blogmate.  Alex Norris has a very insightful piece up at Upon the Gears about the backlash against the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that executing child rapists is unconstitutional.

The decision, reached by a narrow 5-4 majority, ruled that execution was not a proportional response for rape and so violated the cruel and unusual punishment prohibition of the eighth amendment.  Naturally, government officials were infuriated by the idea that they would no longer be allowed kill people.  Amateur exorcist and faith healer Bobby Jindal vowed that authorities in his state would “evaluate ways to amend our statute to maintain death as a penalty for this horrific crime”, leaving no doubt to his complete commitment to undermine our nation’s highest court (between demon expulsions, Jindal moonlights as the governor of Louisiana and potential running mate for John McCain).  Even the deep partisan divides of presidential politics can be overcome when some killin’ needs to be done, as CNN reports:

Republican Sen. John McCain called the ruling “an assault on law enforcement’s efforts to punish these heinous felons for the most despicable crime.” Democratic Sen. Barack Obama said there should be no blanket prohibition of the death penalty for the rape of children if states want to apply it in those cases.

So are our elected officials nothing more a pack of bloodthirsty vigilantes, Alex?

The short answer: no. Our lawmakers are no thirstier for death than we are, as I realized when I thought for a moment. They are thirstier for something that is much more to their benefit. I’m talking, of course, about votes. Everyone wants to be popular. Sometimes, an easy way to make yourself popular is to play the role of a defender of justice and children. How does one cultivate this role? Killing people nobody likes.

I completely understand how sick and disgusting the crime of rape is, and I am horrified at the thought of a child having to suffer from it.  Anyone who would assault a child in this way deserves a very lengthy prison sentence and psychiatric counseling.  But the death penalty is the most counterintuitive solution to violent crime that I could imagine.  We’re going to prove our objection to murder by killing?  We’re going to demand all of our elected officials use the state to continue the cycle of violence?  The only reason capital punishment exists is to satisfy our desire for vengeance, an irrational relic of our primitive past.

I think we all can agree that it takes a warped, sickened mind to commit sexual violence against a child.  But how do our progressive values support killing a criminal because of their mental illness?  Yes, we need harsh prison sentences for these predators to dissuade copycat crimes.  Yes, we must ensure that anyone whose mental problems are so great that we cannot prove medically beyond any doubt that they are no longer a threat to children will never be released from psychiatric confinement.  But we must never forget that despite their heinous actions, even the most disturbed criminals are still human and are victims themselves.  And while the illness that victimizes them may in some cases be so great that they cannot function in normal society, that does not preclude their humanity and the chance that, through prison work programs and similar institutions, they can eventually redeem themselves as contributing members of society.

It takes no strength for a politician to support the execution of a rapist; it merely takes a good ear for public sentiment.  The true strength of character comes from those politicians who can overcome the visceral reaction to the most heinous crimes and the overwhelming public opinion and still find a way to advocate for the rights of the guilty, the most reviled and powerless in our society.

We have to look past our rage at these people and think about what this is doing to our humanity as a nation and as individuals. If we consider the difference between life in prison without parole and a death sentence, which one can we be prouder of? What if, as a nation, we could say “The United States of America does not kill.” [sic] That would be a day that all patriots could take pride in.


One thought on “The Death Penalty”

  1. Adam

    This decision is one in which I, typically quite progressive, actually do not support the court decision. As a preface, I am personally completely against the death penalty and find it to be an archaic and abhorent system. However, when it comes to law and the judicial system I feel that my personal prefferences are not the end all be all. The Supreme Court has unequivically held that the Death Penalty impossed on adults is not in and of itself unconstitutional.

    Being within that framework, I see the courts decision as being an excercise in faulty logic. Why should the federal courts have the power to decide which crimes can be punished with the maximal punishment possible in state. States usually have this discrection on matters as wide ranging as sexual codes and drugs to more serious felonies. Why should the overall balance of states being against the death penalty for child rape matter in the long run? Doesn’t anyone on here see this as a dangerous precedent? If the majority of states are against homosexuality does that give the court a right to ban it. Indeed, the courts liberal direction on sexual ethics took the exact opposite argument. State balance of favor does not define the overall rightness or wrongness of a policy.

    In the end, the question for me is which judicial philosophy do I support. Do I believe that democratic majorities in states can define the rightness or wrongness of an act, regardless of its injury in the long run to individual rights. If so, I can have no child rape death penalty, but also have to say goodbye to homosexual rights, dream away any notion of homosexual marriage, and perhaps say farewell to abortion as the amount of states with bans creeps above + or – 26. this is no a nation I want to live in.

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