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Capital punishment ill-justified

Letter to the Editor | Monday, January 23, 2006

Peter Wicks’ column (“Lex talionis” Jan. 19) is a compelling reflection on criminal justice and death as an instrument of justice. I am particularly called to comment by his apt phrase: “It is impossible to imagine a just society not based upon the rule of law, but the rule of law by itself does not guarantee justice.” By comparing 7th-century B.C.E. Athens and its contemporary civilization in Mesopotamia he determined that there is something more than the law itself which is required to ensure justice. His reference to Solon implies that at least two further elements contribute to justice: reason and a sense of social solidarity.

Today we see two civilizations at odds over the question of whether the State, in the name of its people, should use death as a form of justice. Europe has rejected categorically the use of State killing as both unreasonable – it brings no benefit to the victim and undeniably causes harm to the executee and, arguably, also to the executor who by extension is the whole of the society – and undermining of social solidarity as it removes the barrier between the unjust (the criminal) and the just by making the whole of society party to killing.

Arguments from political philosophy question Wicks’ assertion that “the state no more murders those it executes than it steals from those it taxes,” not the least the concept of the social contract by which the members of a society agree to contribute to the general welfare. I highly doubt the argument could be made that this could include the implicit agreement to alienate one’s right to life.

Even under U.S. law an individual is not justified in killing another except in the circumstance of self-defense or the real or perceived immediate danger to a third party. State killing of a convicted and incarcerated criminal can in no means be defined as self-defense, but only as punishment or revenge, both of which would be rejected as a criminal defense if an individual were tried with the killing of said convicted criminal.

The European argument is a practical one above all: the death penalty cannot undo the crime which was committed, is not a deterrent to future crimes and does not protect society from the criminal. All the death penalty can do is debase the people who use it, legitimating a primitive blood thirst which is not recognized under the law. If in doubt about under which argument the value and dignity of human life and human rights are best reflected, it is revelatory to look around the world to see which societies share, with the United States, the use of State killing as a tool of retribution. With friends like these.

I would like to draw Wicks’ attention to the recent statement of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, the Organization which is the home and guarantor of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and actively promotes pluralist democracy and the rule of law in Europe:”As a friend of the United States of America, I look forward to the day this great country will leave the axis of capital punishment. If moral argument is not compelling enough, the American public should compare the murder rate in states which keep the death penalty and states which have abolished it. Then they would realize that executing people is not only inhuman, it does not work as a way of reducing the number of murders.”

Mary Ann Hennessey-Gopaulalumnaclass of 1990Jan. 21