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Complete Justice
by Michael R. Bowen, M.D.
11 November 2003The Law

Unless we reject the concept that some crimes are worse than others, we must accept that execution of the Beltway Snipers is the only just response available to a civilized society.


If  you will think about what you want to do for other people, your character will take care of itself.  Character is a by-product, and any man who devotes himself to its cultivation in his own case becomes a selfish prig.
-- Woodrow Wilson


The Beltway Snipers may soon be facing the death penalty.  Naturally the Enlightened Ones of Europe are again expressing outrage -- not at the barbarity of the snipers, of course, but at the barbarity of America for maintaining capital punishment. If only we were as advanced as Europe! Even more risibly, nations governed by the Religion of Peace have taken a break from the daily business of amputating the body parts of thieves, stoning rape victims to death, and trapping schoolgirls in burning buildings, to condemn us.

Here at home, critics of the death penalty advance their cause on several fronts: that the death penalty is inhumane, that it is descending to the level of the murderer, that it doesn't deter murder, that erroneous convictions occur, that more people of a particular color are convicted than others, and, finally, that it's just plain low-down-and-dirty revenge and nothing more. 

Humaneness is a trait of a civilized person.  It is reluctance to inflict needless suffering, or to see such suffering inflicted on others. In any case, it's a trait not found in the class of Homo sapiens known as murderers.  And no one in America is stoned to death or tortured to death; they are simply switched off, removed from the human race. There's nothing humane about leaving murderers in our society to continue killing.  Long prison terms are no substitute; killers are frequently paroled to kill again.  And those who are never released nonetheless commonly continue to kill in prison, or at the very least continue to inflict hideous crimes on other inmates.  No, it's not in any way humane to flinch from executing murderers; on the contrary, to oppose the death penalty is to participate in murder.  Pliant judges and nullifying juries almost make capital punishment imperative, since they ensure that no justice will be done except the most final and irrevocable.  It is not blood lust which drives the prosecutor to go for the ultimate punishment; it is the Death-Row Nun and the Free-Mumia demonstrator who get the convict killed as surely as if they'd   thrown the switch themselves.

Do we descend to the level of the murderer?  The murderer does not read Miranda rights to his victim. He does not spend great quantities of money and time making sure that he has the right victim, and that his victim has defense. To descend to his level would require us to execute only innocents, and always brutally.

Deterrence?  Execution certainly deters the executed, and that's good enough.  No one can claim that execution changes human nature; murderers will always be with us.  But we can at least keep their numbers down.  It's of course impossible to prove a negative, so no one can demonstrate how many people were not murdered this year because of last year's executions, but we can say this: a society which does not have punishment commensurate with the crime is not, in fact, a civilized society.  It may be a theocracy as in the Middle East, a dictatorship as in China or North Korea, or a tribe or monarchy, but it's not worthy of any honorable name.  In a civilized society, speeders are fined, bank robbers are jailed, those who kill in fits of passion or drunkenness are imprisoned for life...and cold-blooded murderers are executed.  Such a society demonstrates for all its members that it can distinguish between good and evil, and among the many degrees of evil, and therefore that it is moral.  And though we cannot measure the effect of deterrence, consider that people who would steal paper clips from work would not rob a bank.  Why do you slow down when your radar detector sounds?  Deterrence.  Why do we jail bank robbers?  Why does Sarah Brady think harsher punishments will end gun crime?  Deterrence.  Each level of punishment is deterrence for those not held in check by the levels below it, with the ultimate penalty for those deterred by nothing at all.  We can only honestly forswear the death penalty if we are ready to abandon the law altogether.

It is often held that, because of the gravity of the punishment, capital convictions must be perfectly accurate.  Erroneous convictions are advanced as evidence that the system can never be just.  But this is specious; the effort to be sure in capital cases is commensurately greater than the effort expended on a speeding ticket prosecution or even a bank robbery case.  That we cannot do a thing perfectly in no way excuses us from trying our best.  To those clerics to condemn the death penalty, I extend this invitation: try and sell to your congregations the idea that you must not try to weed out the child molesters in your seminaries, because you might unfairly punish an innocent man.  To abandon capital punishment because you cannot do it perfectly is to declare that your personal peace of mind is more important than the lives which the murderers will claim.  What could be more arrogant?

As to the claims that disproportionate numbers of Blacks are sent to Death Row, it's a simple lie.  Study after study has shown that Blacks are underrepresented on our Death Rows when you consider their proportion of our population, and the much higher rates at which they commit crimes. A white murderer is more likely than a black one to receive the death sentence. Of prisoners executed in 2000, 49 were white, 35 black, and one American Indian. (U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice statistics:www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/cp.htm).

That leaves us with revenge.  But revenge would require that the victim, or his survivors, did the killing.  Moreover, revenge would dictate not a lethal injection or the painless death which a rifle bullet brings; no, revenge would require that prolonged and terrible suffering be inflicted on the condemned. The detached, clinical character of capital punishment deprives it of all vindictive flavor, and it is carried out by the State, not the victims.  People who can deplore but understand a man who shoots his wife's lover are horrified to see a murderer executed by a man he didn't wrong.  But why should we recognize, by a lesser sentence, the rough justice of the "crime of passion," yet shrink from cold-blooded killing of cold-blooded killers?

Punishment, to be just, must be proportionate, must be given with maximum possible care that the right person be punished, and must be inflicted not out of anger, hatred, or revenge, but because it is right.  We cannot be just and fair only up to a point; we cannot abandon justice and fairness just because at some level of severity they become ugly.  Unless we reject the concept that some crimes are worse than others, we must accept that in some cases execution is the only just response available to a civilized society. 

Would I like to be the one who throws  the switch or pulls the trigger ?  Of course not: nor would  you.  We don't like killing; that's part of what makes us members of society.  But there are two parts to the old expression "dirty job"; dirty, of course -- but also job.

Michael R. Bowen practices Gastroenterology and Internal Medicine, and has a weekly column on America's Voices
. This column originally published on America's Voices.

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