to kill or not to kill: the death penalty and a society’s conscience

[Written on August 31, 2010]

Photo by Yvonne Ho / theonlinecitizen.com

A friend asked me to write a treatise regarding my personal viewpoint on the imposition of capital punishment or the death penalty. It is a subject that is fraught with much emotion and conflicting moral and religious underpinnings. It is such that one might think there is no simple way of judging this issue. It may surprise many that organized religions, for the most part, do not categorically oppose capital punishment. The best that can be said is that their views lend themselves to ambiguity.

The Roman Catholic Church views capital punishment as a “lawful slaying”. In Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas defended capital punishment based on theory of natural moral law where the state not only has the right but also the duty to protect its citizens from its enemies. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II states that while the death penalty should be avoided, he does not oppose its use in cases where it is the only remedy by which society can defend itself from the offender.

The various Protestant denominations are divided. Early Protestant minds such as Martin Luther and John Calvin favoured capital punishment. In Die weltliche Obrigkeit und die Grenze des Gehorsams [Worldly Authority and the Limits to Obedience], Martin Luther states:

“This law of the sword has existed since the beginning of the world … that one should kill the murderer. After the great flood, God expressly put it into practice again and confirmed it, by saying in the first book of Moses [Genesis], 9:6: ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.’ …‘…all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’ [Matthew 26:52] which can be understood like Genesis 9:6: ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man’ etc. Without doubt with this word Christ refers to this passage, thus wanting to bring in this term and confirm it.”

Other Protestant churches expressly and strongly oppose capital punishment. These include the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Friends. They cite Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain. They believe that non-violence was mandated by Christ’s preaching in both instances to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. While Buddhist scholars cite specific teachings forbidding the “destruction of life”, countries with primarily Buddhist populations such as Japan and Thailand, impose the death penalty. Judaism and Islam both allow capital punishment.

Every proponent of the death penalty always points to the deterrence of crime as the foundation for having capital punishment statutes. Those who propose the abolition of the death penalty are ridiculed for being soft on crime.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to know whether the death penalty, in and by itself, deters violent crime. There are contradictory studies indicating or not indicating the utility of a death penalty statute as a deterrent. Both types of studies try to isolate the death penalty as a determining variable when other variables may equally be responsible for any outcome.

Modern practice dictates a broader approach to the reduction of crime. This could include increased police presence, the “broken windows” theory of former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani and other measures which emphasize addressing the root of crimes rather than focusing solely on the punishment aspect.

I am a big believer and proponent of accountability to answer for crimes committed and for any other conduct, for that matter. I also believe that the punishment for criminal behaviour and non-criminal misconduct must fit the crime or misconduct that was committed. The question is – for heinous crimes in which the state must impose its highest available sanction – which one is more appropriate, the death penalty or life imprisonment?

Many would say that spending the rest of your life in prison is being as good as dead, that the permanent loss of one’s freedom is tantamount to not being alive. Many, on the other hand, would argue that this is not good enough. They insist on an eye for an eye. This attitude runs counter to what many pro-death penalty advocates say – that their view does not include vengeance as a reason for having the death penalty. Society must make its choice for at the end of the day it is upon society’s collective conscience that any choice will weigh.

My view is simple.

Imagine the horror if the state were to send one innocent person to his death. In a country such as the Philippines were we have just witnessed the limitations (some say incompetence) of our main law enforcement body, where the justice system is broken and where no one can say that everyone will always get impartial justice, what do you think are the chances that such a mistake will be committed? That we, as a collective society, will send an innocent soul to an undeserved death.

Would you want that on your conscience?

Tanong lang.

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