Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Maryland and the Death Penalty

It's a funny thing, living in Virginia and working in Maryland.  The two states are like yin and yang, swirling around the "center" that is the Nation's Capital.  One Democrat, one Republican.  One liberal, one conservative.

I live in Ol' Virginny, the Land o' Cotton Where What Once Was Is Not Forgotten.   But I work in the People's Republic of Maryland.

To get to work, I cross the Potomac river.   There's one working ferry still crossing the Potomac, and given a recent decision by the Maryland State Legislature, I find myself wondering if the next time I ride that ferry back to Virginia I'll find Charon taking my cash.

According to the Virginia Department of Tourism, we're the second killingest state in the Union when it comes to executing prisoners, though Texas wins that honor by a country mile.   But Maryland, well, Maryland is different.  After hemming and hawing, the Maryland State Legislature recently banned the death penalty.

Being of a progressive bent myself, my position on this topic shouldn't be hard to figure out.   I've been pretty much set against it since I was old enough to form coherent thoughts.  None of the arguments advocating the death penalty ever made much sense.

Deterrence?  It is useless as a deterrent.  How do we know this?  How about taking a look at the entirety of recorded human history.  How many drawings-and-quarterings, stonings, hangings, lynchings, burnings, beheadings, electrocutions, and crucifixions have there been over the course of human history?  While you count those up, I'll ask: Do people still commit crimes?  Sure do.  Makes not a whit of difference.

Justice?  The death penalty has nothing to do with justice.  Why not?  Take that horrible BTK serial killer case from a few years back as an example.  That warped soul was named Dennis Rader, and he was a monster.  Here is a human being who murdered at least 10 people, who strangled parents to death in front of their children before killing the children.  How would killing him right that wrong?  Because we can kill him just once.  Even if you went all medieval on the cruel and unusual punishment thing--which in his case would have been tempting--there's just no way that balances out what he did to his innocent victims.  Justice...understood as a restoration of the balances...cannot be served by such a penalty.

Prevention?   Sure, execution prevents future crimes by that person, but that's nothing that a lifetime in a maximum security facility can't accomplish.  And sure, that costs something.  But when the price of something is our primary decision point for an ethical action, what does that say about us as a culture? 

What it boils down to is revenge.  And even there, the death penalty doesn't come close to cutting it.  If someone were to harm my wife, or my boys, my desire for revenge would be visceral.  I would want to destroy them, to tear out their throat with my teeth.  But if I did, that wouldn't ease the loss.  Not at all.  Revenge is a hunger that cannot be sated.

Beyond not getting it on those levels, the death penalty has never worked for me theologically, either.  I can understand using lethal force to stop an act of violence in progress against an innocent.  In that, I'm very Augustinian.  Once that immediate threat has passed, however, things get a little dicier.

 Killing a helpless individual, even if that individual has committed monstrous crimes, well, that just hasn't ever held any appeal from a Jesus-Is-My-Lord perspective.  As my theology has evolved over the past few years, that sense of the wrongness of it has gone even deeper.

If ethics are not about absolutes, but are about establishing or delimiting probabilities of suffering or joy, what does the death penalty do?

What the death penalty does is eliminate both the probability of grace and the possibility of repentance. That's a non-trivial decision on our part, because it flies in the face of what is most central to the message of the Gospel.  The death penalty says, you are done here.  No grace can enter you.  No sense of the actuality of what you've done to another can ever penetrate your darkness.

That may in many cases be true.  Sociopathy is notoriously deeply woven into damaged souls.

I simply cannot see that as a viable way to approach other beings, and nothing could be further from what Jesus taught.