The Two Cultures and a Second Thought

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Although
I have been a supporter of the death penalty for many years I have
struggled with the issue in recent times. It is a question wherein
both sides have arguments that can be persuasive on many levels.
The question's very difficulty underscores its importance. With
life and death riding in the balance and a turn in either direction
such a close call it requires a second thought.

Deterrence
is a controversial aspect and, I have always thought, one of the
most persuasive arguments in favor of capital punishment. Statistics
showing the death penalty (is / is not – choose one) a deterrent
to capital crime are cited by both sides. My own view has been
more specific. When a murderer is executed we do not know the impact
on other criminals. Perhaps it will discourage others from committing
similar crimes or maybe not. But whatever else execution might
or might not accomplish we do know one thing for certain. The murderer
in question will murder no more. Mission accomplished.

Capital
punishment also seems to dovetail nicely with the Biblical prescription
of u201Can eye for an eye.u201D This equation is often misunderstood as
a call to a harsh and unforgiving posture. Quite the opposite is
true. Similarly, from a 21st Century vantage point of
behavioral license, many interpret the 10 Commandments as shackles,
deniers of freedom. In their original context, however, that conclusion
is exactly wrong.

The
Hebrews had lived as slaves for generations. Theirs was a culture
debased by the habits of both thought and action ingrained by slavery.
In providing them with the 10 Commandments, Yahweh was teaching
His people how free men should behave. He was providing the framework
of love of God, personal responsibility and human dignity that true
liberty requires for its continued existence and on which our Western
civilization is built. Far from limiting freedom, the Decalogue
defined what it meant to be free for a people who only knew how
to be slaves.

In
this same way, u201Can eye for an eyeu201D did not ratchet up punishment
to the level of revenge as many believe but rather limited it to
a level commensurate with the offense. At the time it was not uncommon
to kill an offender if one was sufficiently offended, especially
if one were powerful. We see this behavior today in those who will
justify a drive by because of having been dissed. u201CAn eye for an
eyeu201D said no, that's not right. The price paid for a wrong should
approximate the actual degree of wrong committed.

Our
criminal justice system, at least in theory, follows this model.
A criminal who takes an eye does not literally lose one. Instead,
some amount of time or money thought to be of comparable value is
extracted. We attempt to create a punishment that fits the crime
on some level. We might disagree on the variously assigned values
but we accept the theoretical underpinnings of the approach. We
remain at the same level of societal evolution as the Hebrews when
they first adopted this equivalence.

On
these bases, specific deterrence and commensurate punishment, I
have accepted capital punishment for many years. But as I survey
our culture of death I am compelled to admit that I have been wrong.
Somewhere along the way we crossed the line that divides the culture
of life from the culture of death. Charles Colson has rightly observed
that abortion introduced Americans to the concept of disposable
human life. We have taken the ball and run with it. Now there
is death everywhere in our culture. John Paul II is precisely correct
when he calls on our better natures to acknowledge and to fight
against the culture of death. It is time to step forward. The
death penalty is a borderline issue precisely because it is so defensible.
It is a close call and it can be defended convincingly. But it
is still death and once in for a penny we are in for the inevitable
pound. Just as a giant step forward was taken with the adoption
of the 10 Commandments and with the acceptance of u201Can eye for an
eyeu201D it is time for us to take our own step forward.

We
have other means available to us short of killing and we must avail
ourselves of them. The culture of life must commence the counterattack
against the darkness by reclaiming our own borders and that means
opposing the death penalty. We can support life imprisonment.
We can support life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
But we must support life even, perhaps especially, on this issue
where so many of us have bought into death. Because if we do not
allow the seed of death to be planted here it cannot bear fruit
elsewhere.

Death
is everywhere in our culture. One and a half million human lives
are ended every year in our country in the name of misguided choice.
We claim Constitutional protection for the right to stick a fork
in a baby's skull and suck out his brain. An industry thrives selling
the leftover parts. We send our children to government schools
where some of them gun others down without a second thought. Federal
police incinerate scores of people, women and children included,
and the country at large barely raises an eyebrow because, after
all, they were kind of weird. We bomb innocents in eastern European
cities in order to save them. We starve Iraqi children because
Saddam Hussein still lives in Baghdad. As a culture we have become
people who can justify killing nearly anyone, anywhere for any reason.
Or no real reason at all.

If
we are to survive, if we are to be deserving of survival we must
locate the line in the sand that separates the culture of life from
the culture of death and we must find our way back to the other
side. For me, that means acknowledging that I have been wrong about
the death penalty; very wrong, for many years. Just as you cannot
be slightly pregnant it is impossible to favor a little death.
If life is to win, if the culture of life is to overcome the culture
of death our stand must be absolute an unequivocal. The border
must be clearly marked and each of must decide which side we are
on. Either you are on the bus or you are off the bus. Therefore,
choose life.

    June
    13, 2001

    Ed
    Cobb [send him mail] is
    a printer in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. He is a northerner by
    birth, a southerner by choice, and a Catholic by the grace of God.

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