Death Penalty: Reason Has Nothing to Do With It

Power Line posts a provocative essay on the death penalty, using a column by George Will as a springboard:

He reaches this conclusion after juxtaposing the views of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (pro death penalty) and attorney-novelist Scott Turow (against it). Romney cites three reasons why the death penalty should be used in some instances — its deterrent effect will prevent some murders; it expresses and reinforces society’s “proportionate revulsion” against the most heinous crimes; and its presence can induce criminals to turn state’s evidence in order to avoid execution.

Deacon argues, in a dispassionate and intelligent manner, that the death penalty saves lives overall. After all, murderers kill in prison, and have been known to kill when released from prison. The death penalty removes that oportunity. In Will’s column, Governor Mitt Romney argues that the death penalty is a deterrent, which may have been true at one point but doesn’t seem like much of one in the past twenty years. Will goes back and forth but finally decides that since the system is imperfect, he cannot support the death penalty. Deacon decides that the death penalty is the lesser of two evils and supports it, but makes an excellent point when he says:

What I meant, though, is that there are reasonable policy and moral arguments on both sides of the death penalty debate, and that neither side can demonstrate that the other is morally or pragmatically wrong. Where one ends up on this issue depends on what one thinks society should look like. Reason can take us only so far in this debate.

I’m not going to make an argument stating categorically that anyone is morally wrong, but I will tell you why I believe the death penalty is wrong — not ineffective, not arbitrary, but wrong. As I’ve posted in the past, it’s my belief that life is holy and sacred and that most of the problems of the past century have followed from a general decline of this belief. Once we stop treating life as holy and sacred, we open ourselves up to all manner of life-disposal mechanisms: abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, pulling the plug on people like Terri Schiavo where people like the New York Times lecture us on “meaningful” lives as opposed to those not worth living, and the death penalty.
The reason people have trouble understanding the death penalty in the same context is because the people executed deserve to die for their crimes. Assuming that the system is perfect — which it demonstrably is not — and that the death penalty is equitably applied — which it also is not — these people would deserve to die for their crimes. But life isn’t given by the state, and therefore should not be taken by it either. Taking on the prerogative that the state can decide whose life is worth living, no matter what the circumstances, puts the state and individual humans in that position. It opens the door to allowing individuals to decide which other lives are worth living, in other circumstances. Life isn’t sacred or holy anymore; we start valuing life for its practical use only. It’s like the old joke about the guy who asks a girl if she will sleep with him for a million dollars, and she says she will. He then offers her a hundred dollars for the night. She says, “What do you think I am?” He replies, “We’ve already established what you are. Now we’re just haggling over price.”
Lock them away for life, throw away the key; I have no problem with that. In those cases, we’ve properly judged people for their actions. Don’t let them back out, build better prisons; I think incarceration is one of the few functions that governments rightly have. But if we expect society to treat life as sacred and holy in certain circumstances, then we’d better treat it that way under all circumstances. Otherwise, we’ve already established what we are, and now we’re just haggling over preferences.

How to Prove You’re Not Vegetative?

Mickey Kaus describes a chilling story he heard on NPR’s Day to Day:

I heard an eye-opening interview on NPR’s Day to Day with a woman who says she was near to being diagnosed as being in a “persistent vegetative state” and was trying desperately to signal her doctors and nurses while they debated the most convenient time to kill her–sorry, I mean, exercise her “right to die.”

Kaus then asks a very pertinent question:

How does a) the number of innocent people who will be executed under death penalty procedures compare with b) the number of innocent, live patients who will be killed under a tendentious diagnosis of PVS? I’d guess the ratio is probably one to 100, maybe 1 to 1,000. But the American left makes a huge (and legitimate) fuss about the former while it actually promotes the latter.

I doubt many will get to the heart of this like Mickey Kaus. Just as the results of the Innocence Project on death rows across the nation have cast doubt on the death penalty, cases like this should give anyone pause who agitates for killing people based on the judgment of imperfect people.

Peace And Hate

The Dissident Frogman posts on the the depravity of putting guns and bombs into the hands of your own 5-year-old and training him to kill, or especially to commit suicide:

In my book, anybody putting a gun in the hands of his 5 years old son or strapping an explosive belt around her 10 years old daughter is not fighting for freedom, resisting oppression, showing resolve or absolute despair. … For any given parents and group to successfully and repeatedly overcome this instinctive behavior and voluntarily put their offspring at risk, it does not take resolve, pride or despair but a mental pathology, a religious or political fanaticism.

This is true whether you’re talking about Palestinian fanatics or white-supremacist mouthbreathers in Idaho. It’s bad enough that fanatics strap bombs on themselves … but to celebrate when your 12-year-old takes out a few civilians while blowing himself to pieces is just depraved. It stems from a valuation of human life only for its practical or strategic value. It’s the same sort of thinking that forced the Jews into Auschwitz, that starved millions in Soviet Russia and Red China, that created the killing fields in Cambodia, and that separates Western democracies from murderous totalitarian regimes.

NPR Bias on Schiavo – Mickey Kaus

Like me, Mickey is unsure how he feels about the Schiavo case, but he’s sure how NPR feels about it:

“Bias” isn’t quite the right word, actually. A biased report might interview all sides but slant the story to favor one point of view while quoting only unconvincing generalities from the other. That was Thursday’s NPR Schiavo story. Wednesday’s story transcended mere bias, covering the case as if the anti-death side didn’t even exist, so there was no need to even try to find out what they were thinking.

All Things Considered on Wednesday covered the Schiavo story by interviewing three “experts” who were all opposed to the parents and Giv. Bush’s order to restart the tube feeding, speaking to no one with an opposing point of view. Afterwards, ATC spoke at length with a Dr. Sherwin Nuland, who makes the insulting insinuation that Terri Schiavo’s parents oppose her starvation because of guilt over some unknown neglect of their daughter earlier in her life. This prompts Kaus, who rightly notes that the entire issue could have been avoided by creating a Living Will, to state:

Notice to All Potential Mickey Kaus “Surrogates”– If I’m ever in Terri Schiavo’s situation, and not in any pain, please follows these simple rules: Keep the feeding tube in, and keep Dr. Nuland out.

Noted, Mickey. Read the whole thing. For another indication of media viewpoint of this story, read this editorial from the New York Times. It’s an editorial and it should take a position, so bias is not an issue, but this sentence really stands out:

The supporters of the new Florida law invoke society’s interest in ensuring respect for life. But that interest does not equate with prolonging bodily functions as long as possible. True respect for life includes recognizing not just when it exists, but when it ceases to be meaningful.

Meaningful? And who is to determine whether my life is meaningful, in the absence of any written instruction from me? Does the Times feel that life by itself is meaningless?
I’m putting this post into a new category: Songs of the Shining Wire, which follows up on my post from a couple of days ago. Stories which reflect societal pressure to devalue life and expedite the death of inconvenient or impractical life will wind up in this category. I hope it’s seldom used.

The Shining Wire

“Do I wake or do I sleep?”
With those words, David Gelernter expresses his fundamental disconnect with a society that seems to obsess with nightmares, especially the kind from which it feels impossible to wake. He recalls the Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion and deduces that the various ways that followed in which we dispose of life in an ever-easier fashion all spring from this historical point. While I agree with a lot of what Gelernter wrote — and I have tremendous respect for his opinions — I disagree with this conclusion. As I wrote in my last post, all of these are symptoms of the existentialism and nihilism that has plagued the world since at least the aftermath of World War II, and perhaps World War I.
I felt that my post was incomplete, however, in that I didn’t explain the link fully how they are linked to the issues Gelernter discussed in the Power Line post. What I left out was the concept of hopelessness that people feel regarding death. Even people who profess religious beliefs, of all creeds, are susceptible to this, even though most religions explain death as a stage one passes through to reach some higher consciousness. For centuries, for millenia, while humans struggled to progress while understanding that certain death awaited them, they relied on religious faith to maintain an equilibrium and ethical framework with which to interact with each other; losing your soul mattered far more than losing your life. While religion was used as a motivation for evil and terrible deeds, the overall benefit to human advancement is undeniable.
In the twentieth century, that began to change, as the world became more secular, both in government and in private life. Without the underpinning of religion — and the valuation of life as sacred and holy — humanity stopped focusing upward, as it were, but starting focusing inward. With the absence of the soul as a shared concept, life began to be a commodity. In societies built to be “workers paradises”, religion was forcibly stripped from society and the only measure of a human was his contribution to the maintenance of the whole. Even in free Western societies, where religious expression was not discouraged, workers toiled in terrible conditions and in some industries (West Virginia coal miners, as an example) became the functional equivalent of slaves.
The results have been horrific. When people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and later Pol Pot found certain groups of people were inconvenient, they simply built enormous bureaucracies to exterminate them, either for their ethnicity, or their religion, or simply for poltical expediency. These were not deaths in battles; these were not unfortunate plagues; these were deliberate murder, either by intentional starvation, gas, bullets, whatever.
Even moving beyond the extremes, even moving into Western society, the concept of life as banal and essentially meaningless has eroded our sense of purpose. If human life has no value, then the fruits of human labor are also meaningless, and all effort becomes pathetically ironic. As this philosophy takes hold, we begin to value life not as sacred or holy, but for what practical purpose it can serve. Grandpa’s getting old, and the cost of keeping him alive too much? Let’s try euthanasia. Why house criminals when you can execute them and save yourself space, time and money? If someone wants to kill themselves for good reason, why not assist them in doing so? Why not? We’re all going to die anyway.
I was reminded today of a book I read years ago named Watership Down. As memory serves (over fifteen years has gone by), a small group of rabbits must find their way to a new meadow in order for their warren to survive, and the book details their adventures. At one point in the book, the rabbits come upon another warren that is curiously detached, well-fed but not working, and the leader, a rabbit named Silverweed, sings odd and sad songs about the “shining wire” to entertain the rabbits. No one will leave with the main characters because they have no hope of a better life. It turns out that the warren is kept by a farmer, who sets his rabbit snares to harvest rabbits for food, and the shining wire is the snare that eventually will kill each of them.
That’s what clicked with me when I thought about the Power Line post at more length. All of this nihilism, this constant postmodern, ironic disdain for humanity and its value, the obsession with death as the end of all things, is nothing more than singing about the shining wire, and we are surrounded by Silverweeds. Those of us who believe in something more find ourselves in the same place as Hazel, Bigwig, and Pipkin, looking around at a warren full of profoundly hopeless rabbits, who have consigned the entire meaning of their lives to death and death alone.
I don’t mean to say in this that all atheists are consumed by hopelessness and are amoral, and all religious people rise above the material and focus on the spiritual; far from it. What I am saying is that where people attach no intrinsic value to life than its practical application, there you will find no hope at all. Religious fanatics who murder 3,000 people in order to make a point about the ascendancy of their creed attach no value to human life — the 3,000 people are nothing more than a means to an end. Atheists who dedicate their lives to the betterment of those around them exemplify the assignment of a higher value to life. But what I am saying is that societies that assign no value above the practical to human life, who do not value human life as sacred and holy, will devise more creative and efficient ways of eliminating those lives it sees as impractical, and unfortunately, that is the theme of our world over the past century. All the issues are merely the symptoms of the greater sickness.