The Immorality of the Death Penalty

California Executions Death Chamber

Many executed here / by the awful lawfully good – Morrissey in his song Mountjoy

I was astounded the other day when I was looking up Governor Perry’s death stats.  If you read my recent blog on him you would know that last year, I’m not even sure what he is up to now, he hit the 500 mark.  Some of those people were mentally retarded.  

Right now I am reading Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.  She talks about how the gas chambers began with the extermination of the mentally retarded and the terminally ill first.  It was talked about in terms of mercy killings and medical procedures.  

I also just finished reading Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow.  This is a play that takes place in the 24 hours before someone is hanged in Mountjoy prison.  The person that is to be hung apparently killed his brother and chopped him up.  It’s never clear if he is guilty or not.  In fact the person to be hung is never actually seen onstage.  What the hanging seems to do is demoralize everyone else in the prison, from the lowest prisoner to warders and prison officials, whether they believe the quare fellow is getting his just deserts or not.  The play may sound like a downer, but it is actually quite full of absurd comedy.  

I believe the death penalty is immoral.  In saying so you must face the fact that often the people that receive it, though not always as our justice system is full of flaws, have done absolutely horrible things.  Some of these people have killed children in the most horrible ways imaginable.  One shouldn’t think about these things in terms of abstract principles.  

But I can’t help but feel that after reading Arendt and Behan, that what the death penalty does is make our society more barbarous.  When you institutionalize extermination in some way you are saying that it is OK to kill people depending on circumstances.  

In you believe in the death penalty, but in no way participate in the actual process, you are also forcing other human beings, who may be altogether decent, to perform horrible tasks.  My Dad knew former Governor Casey of Pennsylvania.  He was telling me last night that one time he went into his office and the only book on the Governor’s desk was one about the pros and cons of the death penalty.  Clearly he was wrestling with that subject in some kind of existential matter.  As Governor it was his duty to uphold the law and sign off on the death penalty when the law recommended it.  What about the prison guards that must take those on death row to their deaths, or those in the medical field that must administer lethal injection?  If you support the death penalty, do you really want those people to have to carry out that act?  Do you think about how those acts might weigh upon their conscious?  These people are technically carrying out a legal act under the law.  However, the law is making these individuals carry out an act that is one of the worst things a human can do to another, which is to take someone’s life.  

Also, if we say that killing is OK under certain extreme circumstances, does it not make it morally easier to perpetrate acts of death around the world.  Are we not normalizing killing to some degree?  

Again, I want to go back to Behan, whose The Quare Fellow I believe is a read that you should check out if you want to think about this subject.  It is entertainment because it truly does entertain.  I can’t say enough how funny it is.  But it also makes you think, without any of the soapbox moralizing that so many works that deal with this issue would normally do.  It is both seriously funny and dead serious.  In the play one section talks about how horrible death by hanging actually is, as many that hang do not die instantly.  Think of the botched executions that have taken place in Oklahoma and Arizona recently.  No human should die in such a way even if they are guilty.  But what about the smallest sliver of a chance, if one knows how flawed our justice system is, that they might not be guilty?  I think it was Andrew Sullivan the other day, that called it death by torture.  I am reminded of the torture museum I was in in Sienna Italy and all of the horrible ways they killed people in the middle ages.  

But why I want to bring The Quare Fellow back up most of all, remember the person that is executed in the play never actually is seen on stage, is that I think you can make an argument against the death penalty by removing the person at the very center of the argument, the condemned.  I believe this act of killing slowly degrades our society from top to bottom.  It again makes those that are forced to uphold our laws perform horrible acts.  It also gives the message to our entire society that revenge killings are OK.  It puts something immoral at the heart of our “justice” system.  We should be better than an eye for an eye, even if the animal inside all of us occasionally tells us something different. 

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One thought on “The Immorality of the Death Penalty

  1. This is excellent, Jeff. Dad has always been against the death penalty but I admit I have been slower to come to this conclusion. I still think that there are some whose crimes are so horrific that they just should not be allowed on the planet with other people. I have since come to agree with you and Dad that it is wrong to take another life even if the state says it’s okay. Since I would not want to kill anyone, I shouldn’t “make” others do that killing either. And now with the findings of DNA evidence showing so many are actually innocent and with drug companies refusing to let their drugs be a part of any execution and so creating the scenario of botched executions, there’s even more reason to be against the death penalty. It is horrific. The US needs to stand with the civilized countries on this issue and not with the countries who kill their own in the dead of night or in sports stadiums for public spectacle. Thank you for a well-reasoned article. You make me proud.

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