An Eye For An Eye

(Ethan Gates)– A little while back, there was a post on here about a scene from the Sean Penn film “Dead Man Walking” and what it’s like to visually experience an execution (albeit a fictional one). The Scholen one wrote then: “I’m not going to talk about whether I think the death penalty is good or bad, constitutional or unconstitutional.” It was, I would say, a very successful article, open to complications and ambiguities.

When Werner Herzog came to Amherst to share one of TV documentaries from his “On Death Row” series, he opened the discussion by making it very clear that he abhors the death penalty and doesn’t understand nations that allow it. Neither the film that he showed, about a Texas man convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two adult sons, nor “Into the Abyss,” his feature documentary about two men convicted of triple homicide in the act of stealing a car, betray these opinions. Like The Scholen one, Herzog is interested in the experiential factor of the death penalty: how do those on death row, and those around them (guards, family members, lawyers, victims, etc.) feel about their situation? How does time pass in prison? What does a man convicted of death think about?

I envy these people who can look at capital punishment with anything resembling objectivity. I AM going to talk about whether the death penalty is good or bad, constitutional or unconstitutional, because personally I can’t think about it any other way.

I don’t have a ton of legal or philosophical evidence to back myself up. Just some basic logic that I suppose boils down to morality, which is a sticky wicket when it comes to persuading others. But here goes.

The eighth amendment of the U.S. constitution says that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” It’s that last little clause that concerns me. “Cruel and unusual.” Maybe it’s a subjective view, but I think death, in any form, is cruel and most certainly unusual. We regularly toss around the notion of death quite lightly in everyday conversation – “I’d rather die than ____”. But we don’t mean it, not really. And even in the very, very rare circumstances where we might mean it – “I’d rather die than face torture”, etc. – I still don’t think we really understand what we’re saying.

Maybe you’re not a religious person, but I think that pretty much everyone in the world has had their view of death shaped by religion. One of the most appealing attractions of religion (at least all the major Western ones, and more than a few Eastern ones as well) is that it gives you an answer for what happens after death. Now you can believe in any one of those options – heaven, hell, reincarnation, nirvana, whatever – but in the end, that’s all it’s going to be, a belief. That’s why they call it faith, and I respect that. But the objective reality is that no one knows what death is like as an experience. What it feels like. Maybe it’s just a slow, painless passing into nothingness. That’s what we hope it is when we give people lethal injections as a punishment for their crimes.

But maybe it’s something else. Maybe you’re condemning that person to some pain that living people can’t even fathom. It’s a complete unknown. And I can’t think of anything more unusual than that. We value life above everything else because it’s what we know – it’s safe. Death is the opposite.

And the thing is, we know that – that’s why we want to punish murderers so harshly. They robbed someone, maybe multiple someones, of their life. Deliberately. They sent innocent victims off into that unknown abyss. So why do we insist on returning the favor? Yes, you can remove the “innocent” qualifier, but really, capital punishment is simply responding in kind. You’re deliberately taking a life for the crime of deliberately taking a life. An eye for an eye.

Lock these people up and throw away the key, sure. From what Werner Herzog said, it’s even cheaper for the American justice system that way, to have less people endlessly appealing their death sentences. Let them stew for the rest of their lives in a tiny room, with nothing to think about the actions that led them there. That’s neither cruel, nor responding in kind – it’s humane, just, taking the moral high ground. Isn’t that how we want our legal system to operate?

There are lots of things that our government can do as a collective that individual citizens can’t. And that’s ok, to a point. That’s why governments exist in the first place. But the moment that we agree that the government, as a collective, can take a life when an individual can’t – that’s the beginning of a very slippery slope. Can’t we join the rest of Western civilization and find a way to resolve these cases without resorting to Old Testament-style justice? The death penalty is bad. It’s unconstitutional. And America needs to ditch it for good.