I admit to a definite bias. I am convinced of the fundamental soundness of the “seamless robe argument,” i.e. that the right to life applies in all cases, not just with respect to the unborn child.
However, the mettle of my conviction was tested as I reflected on the heinous crime of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, murdering 168 innocent people. How can anyone possibly take in the enormity of the pain and the loss of the families and friends whose loved ones, including small children, were victims of such twisted human madness? A part of me felt that McVeigh deserved to die.
Everyone agrees that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. But is capital punishment appropriate? If you ever could build a case for it, this seemed like a good one. However, I think that we have to back up a bit and look at the bigger picture.
Avery Cardinal Dulles recently outlined the four purposes of criminal punishment in general:
- Rehabilitation - The penalty should try to bring the criminal to repentance and to moral reform. Under certain circumstances this could lead to a return to normal civil life.
- Defense Against the Criminal - The government is obliged to protect society by preventing the criminal from committing additional crimes. For heinous crimes, the Church favours life imprisonment without parole rather than death.
- Deterrence - Punishment should discourage further violence and crime. We believe life imprisonment without parole does so.
- Retribution - Punishment should try to restore the right order violated by the crime. A criminal should pay a price for the offense committed. If possible, the victims of the crime should be compensated for the wrong suffered. This does not mean revenge.
The Cardinal also summarized four objections to capital punishment in our day:
- Wrongful Death - The possibility that the convict may be innocent is the more common reason for opposition to the death penalty. A significant number of wrongly accused criminals on Death Row have been proven innocent.
- Revenge not Justice - The death penalty seems to fan the flame of revenge (and violence) rather than foster a genuine sense of justice in society.
- Devaluation of Human Life - Capital punishment contributes dramatically to the devaluation of human life in an escalating culture of death.
- Incompatibility with Christian Forgiveness - While pardon does not remove the obligation of justice, capital punishment seems incompatible with the teaching of Jesus about forgiveness.
McVeigh was executed, despite receiving the rites of the Church in his condemned cell, with scarcely a public hint of repentance or apology.
After the execution many of relatives who watched it on closed circuit television talked about their disappointment, lack of satisfaction and even “being cheated.” McVeigh’s execution had further victimized them.
“Bud” Welch was not one of them. “Bud,” the father of Julie-Marie Welch—who was one of the 168 persons murdered by McVeigh—publicly shared much of his grief and response to this terrible act of terrorism.
He acknowledged that the first five weeks after the bombing were a blur to him and he simply wanted McVeigh hanged. No trial was necessary. He was prepared to kill him with his bare hands if afforded an opportunity.
However, by January 1996, he was beginning to ask himself, “What is it going to do for me if McVeigh is executed?” He repeated the question for several weeks and kept getting the same answer: “His death won’t help me one bit.”
Although he experienced moments of incredible rage, he concluded that vengeance solves no problems. The criminal commits a violent act. Then we, as a society, ratchet it up; we do him violence. Next, we ask ourselves, “Why are we such a violent society?”
He no longer bought into the big fix that his government was going to fix McVeigh’s horrible crime by causing more death in the name of justice. The main countries that have the death penalty are Libya, Iran, Iraq, China and the United States—not very good bedfellows. He hopes one day to be able to forgive McVeigh.
We must do everything that we can to support the victims of crime and their families and stand with them as they struggle to overcome their terrible loss and find some sense of peace. Nevertheless, we cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.
We need to oppose capital punishment, not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes, but for what is does to us as a society. The call in our own country, in certain quarters, for the restoration of the death penalty is short-sighted. It diminishes all of us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life. We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life. It simply doesn’t work that way.
☩ Frederick Henry