I’ll just come out and say it: I believe it is wrong to kill people. No one has the right to take another person’s life. This may seem an obvious enough statement to most people, as no doubt the great majority of humans believe that murder is an evil act. However, I also believe that the same holds true in regard to what we call state-sanctioned killing, in other words, I am speaking here of the death penalty.
The citizens of the state of California are finally going to get a chance to weigh in on this issue come November with the recent approval of a proposition that will forbid the government from taking the life of convicted murderers. The proposition has already been approved by the Secretary of State as having the requisite number of verified signatures, but it has yet to be assigned a number. For the moment, I’ll refer to it simply as Proposition Y, as in “why not” vote for it?
Or perhaps some may think the designation ought more properly to be seen as Y, as in “why do such a silly thing?” Why not kill a convicted murdered who has willfully taken the life of another? To be sure, there are both legal and fiscal reasons that are put forward as to why it is not a good idea for the state to kill people. Indeed, most countries of the world have done away with the death penalty. The majority of the legal reasons center around the extreme fallibility of human judgment, that is, the fact that juries and judges sometimes make terrible mistakes, which can never be rectified in the case of the execution of an innocent person. Additionally, there is the undeniable reality that the vast majority of condemned murderers are so-called people of color, while it is supposed by many – incorrectly – that the majority of victims are white. What clearly does not follow ipso facto from this is the facile reading that Blacks and Latinos kill Whites in disproportionate numbers. Instead, what does follow is that it is more common for minorities not to be able to afford good attorneys, and that they are therefore convicted of murder in greater numbers, whether they are guilty or not. The other common argument against the death penalty that is often raised is a fiscal one. It turns out that most murder cases are tried multiple times, given the fact that in a majority of states,California among them, a murder conviction brings with it an automatic appeal to a higher court. Additionally, convicted murderers are housed in special cells in separate areas of penitentiaries. The cost to tax payers is enormous, particularly when appeals can and often do go on for years, or even decades, before a case is finally settled.
But I will pass over the fact that such appeals are not always themselves fair. I will pass over the fact, as well, that prosecutors have sometimes even illegally withheld evidence, which might have helped exonerate a convicted murder, in some misguided belief that somehow justice would be served and families would get so-called “closure.” I will pass over the fact, too, that it has been shown over the years that some one hundred and forty convicted murderers were later exonerated. And who knows how many innocents have actually been executed?
All this is true enough. We can add to this the fact, as well, that it has been demonstrated that the death penalty, in itself, is no great deterrent of crime, or at least no greater a deterrent than is life in prison without the possibility of parole. Given all this, it ought therefore at very least to put some measure of doubt into the minds of reasonable persons whether we should have such laws on the books that allow the state to kill people.
Even so, some will no doubt argue that I am being hopelessly naïve and that there are truly sinister, malicious, even demonic people out there who mean great harm to the innocent, and who commit crimes so horrific and of such indescribable cruelty as to fall into the category of pure evil, that they are utterly irredeemable and past all hope of remorse or regret, let alone actual, meaningful contrition. Surely these people, when the proof of their crimes is so far beyond any question as to be almost self-evident, or when they proudly, even gleefully confess to having murdered innocent children or old women, let us say, that such individuals are beyond the pale and no longer deserve to live.
No, even so, it is my belief that we have no right to kill anyone. Just because it cannot be denied that evil people exist in the world, just because it is clear that sick people, incurable psychopaths and sociopaths, live among us, who feel no sense of remorse whatsoever at inflicting great pain and suffering, even death, on other people, it does not follow that we, who are not psychopaths and sociopaths, have the right to execute them.
Would I kill someone in self-defense, you may ask? Would I kill someone who was trying to inflict great harm on one whom I loved, or even on someone whom I happened to see, but whom I did not know? And what about a terrorist, hell-bent on the mass murder of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people? In my mind, these a far more challenging questions than that of whether or not state sanctioned murder ought to be permissible. It is clear to me that the latter is wrong, that planned, legally warranted, I would even go so far to call it premeditated execution on the part of the state is absolutely indefensible and unacceptable. As for the other questions, I can only say that I am a human being, too, and I have to admit that, in a moment of utter terror or of uncontrolled rage, I cannot with any real clarity predict exactly what I would do.
I am a pacifist only so far, I have to say. I would definitely defend myself if it came to that, or a loved one, or probably even a stranger, whom I saw to be in great harm. I believe, or at least I hope, that in such circumstances I would do what I could to inflict bodily harm, even great bodily harm, on such a person in attempt to incapacitate him or her, to stop that person from inflicting harm on myself or another. I do not think I would try to kill them, but I must admit I do not know and cannot say for sure. I am greatly thankful that I have never been tested in such a way, and very much hope I never will be, and so at this point it remains only a hypothetical question for me.
Still, I say again that this is a very different question from that of the premeditated, planned out, legally sanctioned taking of another’s life on the part of the state. If it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt that someone has killed another person, let him or her be put in jail for the remainder of that person’s life with no possibility of parole. Society has every right to demand protection from such people, lest they once again do the unspeakable. But death? No. Just because cruel or crazed or damaged or deranged people take the lives of others, does not give the rest of us the right to take theirs. Everyone’s heart must go out to the almost indescribable suffering that the loved ones of such murder victims must experience. But compassion must not be confused with retribution. In the end, we do not have the right, and we do no one any good, least of all ourselves, when we give permission to take the life of another human being.