'Eye for an Eye' Was Counsel for Restraint, not License to Kill

The “Death Penalty” discussion was quite interesting in your December 25 edition.  Several of the writers appear to make fairly obvious errors in reasoning.  One writer observes, “A majority of the American people support the death penalty.”  I wish we could solve ethical problems by votes; several problems might become so much easier to deal with.  But let’s try to apply this procedure.  Ninety percent of Austria voted in favor of being governed by Adolf Hitler.  By Mr. Greenberg’s reasoning, one might have several possible conclusions:  

  1. Hitler was a good person since an outstandingly great majority voted for him.
  2. Hitler was a good person for that time and day in Austria because an Austrian majority of that day and age voted for him.
  3. An Austrian majority of that day and age is obviously significantly dumber than a US-American majority would have been of that day and age, and so Hitler was a despicable person nonetheless because a majority of Americans significantly outweighs any other majority in this world.

Well.  I think that we would not intuit an agreement with (1), that we would find (2) too relativistic since also the majority of US-Americans may see matters differently very soon or since other majorities of this world might see things differently from the US-American majority or since some sub-sets of US-American majorities—all US-American Roman Catholics, for example—may see things quite differently from the majority that one letter-writer has in mind.  Finally, I would sincerely hope that ethnocentric self-exaltation has not quite run as amok as to endorse (3).  Or let’s try a different problem:  The Catholic church branded Jews as god killers or Christ killers well into the sixties, I believe.  Now since the majority of Catholics are to abide by the hierarchy, one would assume that a majority of Catholics also endorsed the view that Jews were indeed god killers or Christ killers.  In fact, any repressive majority will, by pure majority rule, have the numbers on its side and thus all repression would be justified if majority views were to matter.   But do such numbers establish any moral truth?  I would hope not.  Otherwise, we might have to come to the despicable conclusion that the “shoa” was, in some very perverse sense of “majority”-justice, quite justified.   The letter-writer also charges Stanley Williams to have been fawning under pressure of the death sentence without any genuine conversion of his views.  But Williams’ reputation as a peace-maker and his nomination to the Nobel Peace Prize certainly speak against such a silly assumption.

Another letter-writer’s self-indulgent sadism feels fundamentally wrong and reprehensive in the extreme.  Such thinking establishes nothing.  The FBI at www.fbi.gov reports for the year 2000 that violent crimes had a clearance of 47.5 percent.  The FBI defines “clearance” as someone’s having been apprehended and turned over to the courts.  In other words, a murderer has about a 50/50 chance of being captured and sent to the courts.  Take away from this number all violent crimes committed from passion and pure adrenaline, and the remaining coldly rational murderers have an even better chance of getting away with murder.  Take away from this number the probably false arrests or the defendants cleared by judicial error or the ones who go to their graves protesting their innocence—such as Stanley Williams—perhaps even validly, and the number of murderers not touched by justice increases again.  The result is a pitifully small group of people whose severity of punishment might do anything for anyone out there.   So, why would severity of treatment of the people in jail have any impact at all on the number of violent crimes committed?  In fact, the crime statistics for the European Union, which has firmly established that the death penalty is a violation of basic human-rights, show that that group of nations is doing better than the vengeful US. in keeping violent crimes low.

And the “eye for an eye” justification!  Will it ever die?  Originally, this was a rule of restraint: take only one eye for an eye—don’t overdo this.  But didn’t the Christians just celebrate the birthday of one who counseled love of one’s enemies.  If you could ask him now, would he begin with “depends on how you define 'enemy'” and then exclude criminals?   But let’s just consider the rule as it is and generalize it.  If this kind of tit-for-tat rule were to be sound, then we would rape rapists, steal from thieves, embezzle from embezzlers, beat up spouse beaters, abuse child abusers, and so on.  Somewhere on that line of get-even acts, surely someone is likely to shut down the series.  Such a string of acts would be raw revenge; it would not have anything to do with justice at all.

Intuitively, I quite agree with John Paul II’s statement that a society has a right to protect itself—if need be, by killing; but that a society never has the right to exercise revenge.  If a police officer shoots and kills a homicidal maniac in the process of the maniac’s committing homicide, then such killing is justified by general principles of self-defense or societal defense.  But if a society kills a person already confined, then such killings can only be justified under some perverse sense of justice, the perversion being the thinly disguised yearning for retribution—a troglodyte mentality, in other words.  Certainly, such a step cannot possibly be justified as an enlightened society’s protecting itself.

If we were a truly pragmatic lot, we should be looking at correctional systems that manage to rehabilitate, correctional systems that limit recidivism, and a social structure that reduces the immense lag between wealth and poverty, the latter being the culprit that tends to lead to violent behavior at a scale that is offensive to us, particularly—in all probability—because the poor are offensive to us.  Dow Chemical and Union Carbide’s "murder" of 20,000 Indians cost these companies $470,000,000.00 in fees.  Let’s see.  That would be about $23,500 a person dead.  Take away some of that for all the people injured and still today living with a polluted site, and we’d reduce that figure significantly for a person dead.  Perhaps, we could get away with murder at, say, about $15,000.00 a pop, if we were to be judged by the same standards as the CEO of the chemical plant in India was judged.  Or shall we think of the hundreds of thousands dead and dying in Iraq?  Whom should we incarcerate and eventually execute in that connection, one wonders?