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Why the Death Penalty Is Important

Earlier today, Kent explained why California's vote on Prop 34 will reverberate outside the state's borders.  I want to expand on that very briefly.

Over the years, I have found that many abolitionists genuinely do not understand the motivation of retentionists.  Cries of "blood lust" are not always borne of bad will or the instinct to go ad hominem (although that happens quite a bit).  Those on our side should try to understand that appeals to the dignity and value of human life, and fears about the prospect of executing an innocent person, are genuine in the hearts of those who do not agree with us.  Any person of normal morality must take seriously the mind-bending gravity of the state's intentionally taking a human life.  

I understand these feelings, since at one point they made me a death penalty agnostic.  But I am agnostic no more.  Here's why.

There is evil in this world.  It is not to be mistaken with lack of opportunity, a poor education, or racism.  If none of those things existed, there would still be evil.  It stands its vigil at the border of civilized life, ready to make its foray if given the chance.  Often it is concealed or disguised, which makes the fight against it so hard. But there are times when it shows its face.  These are the child murders, the torture and sadism murders, the drawn out killing of helpless people for the fun of it.

A society that has lost  --  or, more correctly, has forfeited  --  its right to set its face against horrors like that, to recognize some acts as beyond the pale of civilization, and to say no and mean it  --  that society has fumbled away something of ineffable value, something hard won but easily lost.  It has fumbled away that is, the moral strength without which evil will win.

A democracy can afford, and will make, many errors.  It cannot afford that one.      


As I tell people when they ask me why I support the death penalty: some people simply deserve to die for their crimes.

it's no more complicated than that.

"Any person of normal morality must take seriously the mind-bending gravity of the state's intentionally taking a human life."

Actually, I disagree. The idea that some people, through their crimes, forfeit their right to exist is really not that weighty a question at all. In my view, executing a murderer really isn't that big a deal (putting aside innocence issues, of course). An awful crime carries a steep price. I don't know what's so hard about that.

I am enough in sympathy with libertarianism to be suspicious of the government's wielding power. I must say that the present administration, in which the power of law enforcement has been wielded both selectively and politically, increases my concern.

That said, the fact of falliblity cannot make us stand down from our need and duty, in the name of the basic mores of civilized life, to put a permanent end to remorseless killers. To hesitate because of the inevitability of error is to hesitate just long enough for evil to win. When it does, abolitionists will live just long enough to regret what they allowed to happen.

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