Monday, April 13, 2015

The Boston Bomber and the Death Penalty Debate

With the conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on all counts in the “Boston Bomber” Islamic terror case, attention now turns to the penalty phase. With the death penalty on the table for the Massachusetts jurors to consider, the ageless debate over the propriety of the ultimate penalty has predictably resurfaced.

In its editorial, the New Jersey Star-Ledger (S-L) took the opposing view, arguing that the Death penalty is wrong, even in Tsarnaev's case. But their argument is far from convincing, to put it mildly.

To be sure, the death penalty debate is a tough one. It all comes down to fundamental principles, and their are good arguments on both sides. There is also a lot of confusion among both proponents and opponents. The S-L’s editorial exposes the confusion. I suggest reading the S-L’s editorial in its entirety, before reading my comments:

This could have been a great editorial. Instead, it’s a tangle of contradictions and irrelevancies.

The Star-Ledger first says “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev does not deserve to live,” then calls his would-be execution “this random application of vengeance.” But if Tsarnaev deserves to die, it is not an act of vengeance. Justice means getting one’s just deserts; i.e., the punishment must fit the crime. Vengeance is retaliation without regard for balance between the act and the punishment. So which is it? Would Tsarnaev’s execution be justice or vengeance? Justice argues for the death penalty. Vengeance against it.

The Star-Ledger then goes on to offer what I believe to be the only valid argument against the death penalty—the possibility of executing an innocent person—and the S/L makes the case well. Why, then, muddle the argument with:

Capital punishment has no effect on violent behavior - not even by killers and terrorists. Countless studies have shown that official state killing does not make us safer. Nor does it bring back a life.

It’s debatable whether the death penalty is a deterrent, but beside the point. The common refrain that the death penalty won’t bring back a life is also beside the point (neither will a life sentence bring back a life). Criminal punishment—and criminal law generally—should never be used as a deterrent, or for any reason other than to deliver justice.

Likewise, the reference to race is irrelevant. Statistics tell you nothing about individual cases, which should be judged on the merits.

The worst of this editorial is in the conclusion, which states: “A killer shows that he has no regard for human life. Society doesn't have to lower itself to his standard.” On the face of it, this contradicts the very first sentence: “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev does not deserve to live.” Is the S-L saying that Tsarnaev’s cold-blooded murder is an act of justice, and society shouldn’t stoop to imposing justice? Is the S-L drawing a moral equivocation between cold-blooded aggression and just punishment—i.e., between initiatory and defensive force? Or is the S-L stating that although killers deserve to die, we should get rid of the death penalty to protect the innocent from wrongful execution? If so, it’s far from clear, and your guess is as good as mine.

One thing is clear to me. Leaving aside the pros and cons of the death penalty debate, Tsarnaev certainly showed no regard for human life, which is exactly the fact that justifies the death penalty in his case. If society imposed that ultimate penalty, it would not be lowering itself to Tsarnaev’s standard. Just the opposite, in fact. Getting rid of those who have no regard for human life would be evidence of a society’s ultimate reverence for human life.

Most false convictions are old convictions overturned through modern forensic methods, such as DNA testing. Such modern methods greatly reduce the chance of future false convictions, especially alongside the lengthy appeals process. The overturning of past false convictions actually weakens the case against the death penalty. My own view is that the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes should stay on the books. Objective certainty is possible, especially today, as even the S-L acknowledges in the Tsarnaev case (“there is no mistaking Tsarnaev's guilt”).  The death penalty, properly applied, is a signature element of a pro-life society.

I realized too late that my last sentence can be misinterpreted to be anti-reproductive rights. But I did not use the “pro-life society” phrase in the Religious Right, criminalization-of-abortion sense. I meant “pro-life” in the broader, rational sense of valuing the lives of actual, living, breathing human beings.

Related Reading:

Amnesty International Shows It's Stripes

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