My deconstruction of Mr. Goldberg's column tells me that some of us (like Mr. Goldberg) need to review the basics. Killing people is wrong. I'll go slow, because while the subject matter is elementary, apparently there are some alleged grown ups out there who still don't get it. So, once more: killing people is wrong. Here's what I mean by that. Ending someone's life will cause more problems than letting them live. No one exists in isolation and the consequences of killing of any random individual can echo for millennia.*
People out there have done horrible things, things for which the legal systems that indulge in execution, would sentence the perpetrators to death. We share the planet with murderers, rapists, arsonists, slavers and drug dealers. Many of the countries that have the death penalty will apply it to people convicted of those crimes. And yet, the countries that do have the death penalty also tend to use it for things that the average American is less comfortable with classifying as a capital offense. Things like apostasy, infidelity, heresy, and homosexuality. When we as a country condone capital punishment, we put ourselves in the same league as the repressive theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the totalitarian prison state of North Korea. So having capital punishment, puts us in very disreputable company.
Outside of exploitative Hollywood horror, the murder crazy psychopath is rare. Personally I'd like it if they were even rarer, and that people like Jack the Ripper or any other serial or spree killer you can think of weren't household names. But they are rare, and for every horror movie worthy killer out there there are hundreds of jealous lovers, drunk drivers, and even workplace owners with a criminal disregard for workplace safety, just as culpable for the deaths that they caused. But killing even remorseless killers doesn't make society more moral, and it won't undo the damage they have caused. There is no moral calculation that can tell us how much restitution is required to expiate a murder, like dividing by zero the answer is infinite. But killing even the worst of us only leaves us with more blood on our hands.
'Life isn't fair' is such a trite observation that it borders on worthless., because it points out that our ideas of right and wrong, are subjective, and useful only for interpreting the actions of people and don't apply to the universe at large. But once the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, are excluded from consideration, you have a very telling indictment of civilization. Because society isn't fair. How could it be fair laboring under the legacy of history? Imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, communism, fascism, racism and whatever -ism applies to religious violence have drawn the map of the world. Our history of violence has empowered the violent at every turn and by refusing to address that, we let the violent keep their ill gotten gains, and continue the cycle of oppression and violence.
But as the 20th century has shown, we are too good at violence. The industrial revolution has commoditized the formerly bespoke world of organized slaughter. Firepower that would amaze and terrify Genghis Khan is available to any American with a credit card. And just as for individuals, countries have access to arms far in excess of historical armies, and hold in their arsenals the keys mass destruction worse than anything up to another dinosaur killer meteorite. Violence begets violence, and we have too much tinder stored up to continue playing with matches.
When someone can transcend the ongoing crush of mutually destructive imperatives that define modern life, and can stand up and advocate for peace and make their message heard, their days are numbered. The list of important peacemakers of the 20th century, has a lot of overlap with the list of murdered peacemakers. And morally repugnant as it is, sometimes yesterday's terrorist saves more lives as a peacemaker than they cost us as a killer. Nelson Mandela was described as a terrorist, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein has been dogged with allegations of terrorism, yet both of them were critically important in ending ongoing violence in their respective countries.
Which is not to say that I advocate shrugging our collective shoulders to the problem of violence. Indeed it is critically important to address the problem of violent crime. But it is only a small subset of addressing fundamental inequalities. So when they are captured and convicted lets make sure to calmly and dispassionately keep them from harming anyone again. And not by killing them, but by warehousing them in a place that is warm and dry, where they can be put to work for prevailing wages at useful work and keeping them from harm and keeping them from harming anyone else. And to deflect any criticism that we are coddling the worst of society, we need to make sure that every free citizen also has access to room and board and employment of a better class than is being provided to prisoners.
Because under the current system of incarceration, barely paid labor and execution, we are compounding the crime of tolerating a society where the poor and vulnerable are exploited, with our complicity with institutional slavery, abuse and murder. When we condone a society with no safety net, when we allow business decisions to impoverish millions for the sake of a stock price, when we resist any effort to stem the flow of deadly weapons to those least capable of owning them safely we make violent crime inevitable. People don't go away because society has no use for them, people don't choose to starve to death rather than steal, people (generally speaking) don't turn to crime if they can legally earn a living. If we want people to start making better choices, we need to give them better options.
So, I accept that people will call me a starry-eyed bleeding-heart liberal. That's probably an accurate description. But anyone who reads the (non wingnut) news knows that global climate change is going to re-draw the map over the next hundred years. Resource depletion means that power and food and clean water will be a lot more expensive than we'd like. And maybe it's just me, but when the waters are rising and the storm is blowing, I'm not going to be too picky about who made the sandbag I'm filling. I think we are going to need all hands, in the years to come, and I think that we may be doing ourselves a great disservice every time we execute someone. And by working towards these goals, we can build a civilization worth saving.
*The canonical example is that of a certain Jewish carpenter in Palestine 2000 years ago.