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CL Response: The Death Penalty




It may seem strange, in a conversation on the consistent fabric of life dimensions of a number of current policy debates, to bring in the death penalty. It seems like an opposite issue. Those on death row have almost always taken life. Their behavior if not their lifestyles have demonstrated a fairly consistent disregard for human life. They have perpetrated the ultimate act of human violence -- the final and irrevocable taking of the life of one or more human beings. 


They have frequently left profound human tragedy in the wake of their violence -- families, communities deprived of loved ones -- a lifetime of grief. Persons on death row, it seems, have forfeited any concern for their life by their taking of life.Yet, the consistency of concern for the seamless fabric of life forces us to compel the limits of its consistency and commitment in the face of the death penalty. The issues behind the death penalty force us to ask whose "life" is at issue in a consistent life ethic. Ultimately a profound and existential commitment to life leaves us with no ability to say whose life is to be protected. Otherwise we revert to the worst excesses of trying to use abstract rights theory in some metaphysical calculus of whose life has dignity, whose has less, and whose has none.


Analysis of earlier issues shows how bankrupt that path is without a context of solidarity, community, mutual building up and protection of the web of life. When John Donne said not to "ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee", then it must be that in the life of the convicted murderer the web of life of each of us is at issue. Just because the convicted murderer has not accepted this, we are not freed of our own efforts at living like people who respect the dignity of life wherever we find it. We cannot permit the convicted murderers to take not only life but our values away from us. We simply cannot give them that much power over us lest we become
like them.


We are alone among the developed nations of the world in still executing our fellow human beings under the code of law. Every sociological and criminological study has shown that it has no practical effect whatsoever on deterring crime. States without the death penalty have the lowest rates of crime in the country. Crime rates in the states that have instituted the death penalty have risen. It is even publicly billed as an official act of vengeance in the name of the victim or victims. The social impact of officially sanctioned acts of violence are likely inestimable. Many question whether we do not simply officially ape the actions of the convicted murderer in our cries of blood lust for execution. We coldly and calculatedly try the person, go through years of appeals, and ritually put them to death by an overpowering act of state violence. Can this possibly foster love and respect for the dignity of life in a society already struggling with violence in its culture?


Every objective study of the U.S. death penalty has left us with serious questions about the justice with which it is applied. Amnesty International has condemned the U.S. death penalty as a sanction reserved for the poor, members of minorities, those otherwise without any social power. Almost no one who can afford a good attorney, especially if white or with social standing, is condemned to death. Two former Supreme Court Justices say that it generates the philosophical conundrum of an absolute and irrevocable human penalty for a legal system that is inherently relative and prone to error.


Recent efforts to undermine more than a century of habeas corpus protection to avoid erroneous executions is under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act (which had nothing to do with U.S. domestic crime in any of its negotiations or drafting) and the elimination of the federally funded centers that pursue death penalty appeals for testing their accuracy (in the 1996 appropriations bill) only further tests our national resolve to implement the death penalty with a sense of justice and respect for human dignity.If our respect for life were resolute, consistent, and committed, the U.S. would join the other developed nations of the world and let go of this barbarism that reflects the violent past of our species.


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