Friday, January 25, 2008

Reasons Matter

Capital Punishment is not a major interest of mine. I only wrote on the topic to try to make the case that using the wrong arguments in wrong forum undermines discourse.

On my last post Jason D'Avignon left a quandry:

"I find it somewhat disturbing the company the US keeps in regards to capital punishment. No other western government kills its own citizens."

Before answering the quandry, I should point out that holding similar positions does not mean that one is in cahoots with or shares the same ideology as others who hold that position. Different ideologies might share the same position for wildly different reasons. Different thought systems might even have different ideas about what is the moral high ground. From one point of view an absolute prohibition against the death penalty appears to be a moral high ground. People who've spent time studying the nature of thought might find absolutes naive.

Anyway, D'Avingnon's quandry can be answered by looking at history and the ideologies behind the history. The nations that were quick to abolish capital punishment last century had recent histories where their government killed large number of people to achieve dubious social ends.

Many of the killings were backed by seemingly progressive ideologies. We must kill group J to achieve social progress. Mexico had an extremely violent period in the 1920s with estimates of over a million being killed. There also were persecutions in abuses that occured in the sixties.

**Yes, many of the rogue killing groups in the US were done by government agents. A prime example occurred when the progressive General Armstrong Custer rode forth to kill some indians to establish his military credentials for a much anticipated bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Andrew Jackson had done unto the Seminoles for similar reasons.

Our government has engaged in rogue activities like invading countries without the declaration of war. In most cases, the rogue actions of our leaders led to a public backlash.

The American pioneer myth is not simply government overcoming private weakness. The myth sees rogue behavior in both the private and government sectors. The myth is of civility overcoming incivility.
The United States is not without fault. The American frontier experience seems to have had the form of rogue groups killing people**. In the American frontier experience, the judicious use of capital punishment was seen as a civilizing force.

In the perspective of American History Capital Punishment is not seen as a sign of incivilty. The experience is that capital punishment after a fair trial is a civilizing force.

The American ideal is to create a court system with sufficient safeguards and moral authority that we feel comfortable that the people we execute are guilty as charged.

You might laugh at this ideal and note that courts are never absolutely objective. This is what we are taught in public school. Public Schools adhere to Dewey's interpretation of Hegelian/Marxist dialectic. In Marxism, everything is relative to existing power struggles. Courts simply reflect existing power structures. The idea that there is a higher morality is absurd just as trying to create a judicial system that is capable of trying death penalty cases is absurd. States execute people for social ends.

The idealist would rebuke saying that no-one ever achieves their ideal. The inequities shown in the history of the courts show that there is a great deal of work to be done to achieve our goal of a just court system.

There is a subtle point here. If you give up on capital punishment because you reject the ideals of fair laws and objective courts; then your capitulation on the death penalty is in effect a capitulation on the rule of law.

Despite the faults of the death penalty, capital punishment cases shine a bright light on the inner workings of the judicial system. The statistics from capital punishment cases stand out and show ongoing injustices in our society. Awareness of such inequities is a good thing.

In Utah, we executed William Andrews. William Andrews was a man "bearing the Mark of Cain" who was an accomplice in a heinous crime. Andrews left the room just before the murders. We did not consider the death penalty in the case of Mark Hoffman who was a cold calculating killer. A big capital punishment case in Hoffman's case would have been an embarassment to an extremely powerful group in the State. The duplicity shines out like a beacon and writes volumes.

I know some people will be very upset about the above paragraph. In every state with capital punishment, one can find troubling patterns in the application of the penalty.

If we give up on the death penalty simply because we don't like the troubling questions that arise in the wake of high profile cases; then our abolishing the death penalty is not a statement of a higher morality, but a cop out.

If we give up on the death penalty because it is the path of least resistence, or that we find it easier to accept our courts are shabby, or from a belief that it is easier to hide our mistakes by incarcerating people for life; then we are giving up on rule of law.

The statement that the countries that abolished the death penalty are morally stronger than the US may not be true. Yes, one can argue that a country that rejected capital punishment out of an authentic commitment to nonviolence has a moral high ground. A society that abolished the death penalty because they've capitulated on the rule of law is taking a cowardly path based on moral weakness.

The substance behind a position often matters more than the position. A society that rejects the death penalty from a prolife stance is apt to improve. A society that holds that justice is simply relative to existing power struggles and abolishes the death penalty by capitulating on the ideal of rule by law is apt to regress.

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