A letter in the Birmingham News refers to the death penalty as "a necessary deterrent" and calls the fact that some innocent people will be put to death "a minor oversight in the larger picture."
There's been quite a bit of chatter about the death penalty here recently since the News, which has a moderately conservative editorial stance, ran a several part series about capital punishment back in November, and is now calling for an end to the death penalty.
Since we live in a time when facts are malleable, and subservient to one's preferred beliefs, it comes as little surprise that the letter writer reverts to the "necessary deterrent" claim, despite the fact that the News series laid out in detail the lack of evidence for any deterrent effect. A belief in deterrence is one of the cornerstones of death's emotional appeal.
There are two arguments against the death penalty -- call them the pragmatic and the moral. The pragmatic argument is very simply that we know that there is no perfect system and that despite all of our checks and balances, we will put some innocent people to death. Despite W's insistence that he knows that every person he executed while Governor of Texas was guilty, the evidence is clear that this is impossible, given the number of executions. When faced with the innocence argument, death penalty proponents often pull out some particularly egregious case where there is no doubt about guilt and the crimes were particularly gruesome and awful -- "Surely," they say, "this man is evil and should be put to death?" This is, of course, an irrational response. The argument is not about any particular case, but about whether or not we can create a system that insures, without fail, that only those sorts of cases will end up in the executioner's chair. The flood of DNA evidence cases in recent years makes it clear that many people have been wrongly convicted -- and it is the law of numbers that therefore some of those who have been executed must have been wrongly convicted. We cannot design a system that is foolproof.
The letter writer's argument is at least logical -- it's okay that some innocent people get killed. In the "big picture" it is more important that we kill the evildoers. The families of the victims need "closure". "Justice" must be served. This is Old Testament justice -- an eye for an eye.
In the fables of vengeance, whether they be folktales or modern novels or movies, the embittered hero, whose loved ones have been brutally murdered or whose lives have been otherwise destroyed, devotes his life to seeking vengeance against those who have wronged him. The result is always the same. The hero achieves vengeance and discovers that it does nothing to resolve the hurt and that he has become irretrievably damaged himself; or, something turns him in time and he finds spiritual healing only with the realization that vengeance itself is soul-destroying.
This is the crux of the moral argument -- that when we, as a nation, take it upon ourselves to exact that sort of vengeance, we are corrupting ourselves. The civilized nations in the world have come to this conclusion -- that it is barbaric for the state to take upon itself the right to put its citizens to death. (That so many fundamentalist Christians favor the death penalty is just one of the ironies here that is hard to get one's head around).
The news stories surrounding another execution always feature the family members who have waited so long for this day to come. They believe that they can only have peace when the one who has wronged them has been put to death. Given the way our system works, they have waited for years for this. The desire for vengeance has filled their nights and their days, twisted their lives forever since the day of their loss. I grieve for them, and wonder what their lives will be like in the weeks to come -- will they find peace after all? Or will they still wake up at night, full of pain and loss, realizing with horror, finally, that one death cannot account for another?
But maybe it is healing for some of them. I can't say. In a society where someone can refer to the state-ordered execution of the wrongly convicted as "a minor oversight", we are all barbarians.