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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Glorious Reappearing
I've heard every argument in favor of capital punishment, none of them compelling. And none overrides the raw fact that clunky judicial bureaucracy allows many false convictions, the exact scope of which is only coming to light with the spread of DNA testing. The arguments usually range from "cheaper than imprisoning them for life" to "society has to protect itself" to "some crimes deserve the ultimate punishment," etc. etc. etc.

Pro-death penalty liberals (of whom there are distressingly many) are particularly fond of that last argument, as though they've stumbled upon that transcendent tablet of justice whereon is graven society's ultimate law. The murder of children is one favorite, as is child molestation. Clearly these are monstrous crimes, and they speak explicitly about the value our society sees in protecting the innocence of childhood, such as it is. But it is less automatically clear that the prescribed and proper punishment must be death to the perpetrator.

My thesis is this: the killing of a person, after that person has been rendered harmless, is cold-blooded murder.

Even the worst offender, when permanently locked in a room by himself, is unable to harm those on the outside. He has therefore been rendered harmless, and his execution would serve no purpose beyond state-sanctioned retribution. And that doesn't even get into the mistaken execution of people wrongly convicted.

A citizenry that embraces an official policy of execution is only one step away from an official policy of torture. Maybe less than one step. And a nation that permits capital punishment has little moral authority even to condemn torture by its own government.

Consider Alan Dershowitz. Back in 2003 he declared that torture can be okay if it's authorized by the higher administration and done with sufficient justification. The "ticking time bomb" describes a mental model in which BadGuyA may have information about an imminent, catastrophic attack. According to the Dersh, we are therefore justified in torturing BadGuyA for the greater good. Specifically, in the hope that numerous lives will be saved.

It's a fatal mistake to create official policy based on the most extreme what-if scenario. If you don't believe me, then ask Donald Rumsfeld, who has famously declared "I don't do hypotheticals." However, anyone relying on the "ticking time bomb" is going directly against Rumsfeld's Golden Rule.

Emperor Dubya and his surrogates are grabbing guys off the street in many different countries and then "rendering" them to torture-o-philic nations without any pretense of an immediate (ie., a justifying) threat. Of course, Emperor Dubya has put us in a state of perpetual threat, so it's at least consistent--though morally disgusting--to argue that any suspected terrorist might have information that might save people.

If torture is wrong, it's wrong, regardless of circumstances. If, depending on circumstances, it's not wrong, then it must be expressly justifed on a case-by-case basic. But torture-apologists want it both ways: "It's always wrong except when we say it's justified, and when it's justified we're off the hook."

If you feel that you're justified in cauterizing some fellow's genitals, then you need to accept the consequences of your actions, even if you're "correct" in carrying them out. That's the key, I think. Emperor Dubya's minions, and Cheney in particular, want carte blanche to torture at will without ever being accountable.

I am aggressively opposed to the death penalty, but to defend my own life or my family I would readily kill someone if no other option were available. And then I would accept the penalty for that killing. I wouldn't hide behind Gonzales or lawyerly equivocations or so-called non-policy memos advocating murder with no consequences.

Back in 1988, in what can only be called truly offensive move, Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis this famous question:
Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?
Dukakis should have called Shaw out for being an asshole, but instead he tried (admittedly, in a lame fashion) to field the question that more or less secured Papa Bush's victory.

Mike should have said that his pain and anger would inspire him to execute the rapist personally. And then Mike should have said that an enlightened society doesn't create laws based on extremes of emotion, be it joy or sorrow or rage or fear.

If we flatter ourselves to believe that we are in any way an enlightened society, then we absolutely must reject any legislation wrought in the throes of societal panic. Perhaps our distinguished Senate will consider this when working to renew the PATRIOT act in the coming weeks.

By the way: sorry I've made nary a peep outside of the "comments" box lately. I'll post a little explanation tonight, but I'll warn you that it's nothing exciting.

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