Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Vengence is Mine Sayeth the State ... and Liberals, too

I find it awfully amusing seeing a bunch of well-noted lefties hand-wringing about the death penalty. And given the recent stories about Tookie Williams and Corey Maye, there has been a lot of it lately. The recent commentary flying about the blog-space regarding this issue is notable for one saliant feature: equivocation on the death penalty and how it seems to some of these well-respected yet lesser-thinkers that the death penalty is just fine in civil society. Apparently, the need to look "tough on crime" educes them to shamelessly pontificate that, theoretically, the death penalty is good and just but that only our practice of it somehow fails. I almost sense the fetid air of apologia in some these missives.

For example,

Obsidian Wings:
I don't have any moral qualms about the death penalty as a concept. It may make me seem callous or monstrous to some, but I don't think there is anything wrong with some vicious murderers being punished by losing their own lives.
Kevin Drum:
I'm basically with Max on the whole Tookie Williams/death penalty thing: I'm not opposed to the death penalty qua death penalty, but I long ago became convinced that it was impossible to administer fairly or reliably and thus should be abandoned.
and the man Kevin is with, who seems, not only to embrace revenge but to relish it:
I have nothing in principle against executing guilty people, because I'm o.k. with retribution. Call it revenge if you like. Serve it cold, serve it piping hot, I'm o.k. with it.
I'm sure there are many, many more.

The reek is nosed by a common scent: say that you're for it, in theory, but against it in practice because we just hopelessly screw it up all the time. And, now this is crucial, toss a few adjectives like "vicious" and "monstrous" just for good measure. I can almost hear the simpering: well, he was monstrous, so that makes it ok ... right? In other words, there are no philosophical qualms, only pragmatic ones. Pragmatism is not the foundation upon which civil society is based. Above all, civil society is founded upon an ideal. That ideal, for civil societies save one, does not embrace the death penalty. As for as the last chap, well, civil society appears not to be much of a concern for him at all. It's all Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye for Max.

Where does one begin in addressing these bizarre statements, statements that one must view as contradictory to what one might have thought were the political natures of those making them? These are a sampling of the liberal political realm that will assail the Christian right for their abuse of the ideal of the "culture of life," although they see nothing wrong with embracing the death penalty. Not content to simply mete out justice, some actually proclaim to revel in the vengence. These are supposed liberals who decry the assault on civil society by the machinations of the Bush administration, beholden as it is to Christian fundamentalists, though their apprehension of just what they mean by civil society appears, with this embrace of capital punishment, to be murky and confused.

Let me firstly reiterate that the general goal of the American democratic experiment has been an embracing, participatory civil society. If you are fine with America being a thug state, so be it, but this is not generally how Americans wish to view their country and it certainly is not how any liberals would. At least, I thought that should be the case until recently.

There are any number of reasons, both pragmatic and philosophical, that sould dissuade us from capitol punishment in civil society. I would argue that, firstly, we are hardly in a position to call ourselves civil when we do employ the death penalty. One of things that should be obvious, and is obvious to most other democratic civil societies, is that civil societies cannot be in the business of killing its own citizens, regardless of the crimes involved. This is a position that even stalwart conservative George Will, of all people, will argue (I am not sure if Will has any moral qualms about it and he may come to the opinion from the conservative position of distrust in the competence of government, in general).

On the pragmatic question, which is not really the most compelling, the recent spate of overturned death penalty convictions, via DNA and other evidence, should have already convinced us that the criminal justice system is near moribund. Justice is not being served and the US is on a rampage of jailing more and more people for lesser and lesser crimes, It is highly likely that innocent people have been executed in this country, possibly many. Further, the Corey Mayes story should also inform us that, even when the party is "guilty," the application of the death penalty can be highly questionable and capricious. If Schwarzenegger's denial of clemency demonstrated anything, it demonstrated a callous political posturing that had little regard for any putative rehabilitation.

In fact, what Schwarzenegger's decision did demonstrate was the State message that, rehabilitated or no, we're still going to whack you. The craven position taken is that while we --as a civil society -- incarcerate under the pretense of rehabilition, the State will insist on refusing recognition of any such rehabilitation: if it does happen, we won't believe it anyway. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, this is the reality of justice under American "civil" society. I am not saying that Williams was not guilty -- though he claimed otherwise -- but if his subsequent behaviour in prison did not demonstrate rehabilitation, what would? What is the standard? Clearly, there is no standard and the clemency decision was ultimatley dependent upon the arbitrary decision -- infected by politiking -- of one pusillanimous politician.

But even if it were the case that all death penalties convictions were exactly correct -- the convicted was the real guilty party -- it still should not be done. Civil society should embrace a thoughtful consideration of just what justice is. Civil society is generally of the mind that killing is wrong and tries to discourage such things. Execution does not convey the message that killing is wrong. At all. In fact, what the message does convey is that revenge is acceptable in some cases and that the state will conduct this revenge on behalf of the aggrieved parties. This revenge also appears to be very nearly arbitrary and capricious in its application. Some 1st degree murderers get the death penalty, many do not. Some get clemency, some do not.

The idea that the death penalty somehow exacts justice is a morally conflicted, hypocritical and abysmally wrong-headed stance, regardless of the state of a prisoner's rehabilitation. But if you're fine with state executions being conducted for no other reason than revenge, then whatever you may call yourself, the one thing you certainly are not is a liberal.


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