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More Nonsense from the NYT

An editorial yesterday in the NYT criticizes the pending execution of John Errol Ferguson in Florida.  At least the Times for once describes the crime, however briefly:  "Mr. Ferguson, who brutally murdered eight people in 1977 and 1978, has sat on Florida's death row for 34 years."

The point of the editorial is that the execution would be unconstitutional, because, so says the Times (as ever along with defense-hired "experts"), Ferguson is insane. This sort of stuff is old hat, and my point here is not to rehash whether the Times' editorial board knows the law better than the numerous state and federal judges who have approved the execution after a painstaking inquiry into Ferguson's mental state. Instead, my point is to take on one particularly absurd argument I see all the time from abolitionists.  As the Times puts it:

Both Mr. Ferguson's and Mr. Hill's crimes were unquestionably horrific; the crimes of death-row inmates almost always are. But to focus on the crime obscures the central moral dilemma of capital punishment. As Sister Helen Prejean, the death-penalty opponent, has put it, the question is not whether someone deserves to die but whether we deserve to kill him.

What hogwash.  First, the question, in death penalty cases, as in all others, most certainly is what the parties deserve.  Although the Times seems to have missed this, the whole point of the justice system is to give the parties what they deserve.  Does the Times have some other purpose the system ought to be pursuing?

But putting that to one side, if "we"  --  i.e., the duly empowered organs of democratic government  --  cannot, after years of the most probing deliberation, give a multiple murderer what he deserves, who does the Times recommend for the job?

It's just astonishing what sophomoric baloney abolitionists want to palm off as "wisdom." 


I often hear the usual justifications for ending capital punishment. Deterrence is a fallacy. Innocents and the mentally ill are killed off all the time. Racial inequality is rampant in sentencing. The detrimental impact on the executioners is immeasurable. Closure is rarely if ever achieved for victims’ families. “Eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” (M. Gandhi) People are not evil, their actions are evil. The list continues...
While I agree with each of the above wholeheartedly, I believe that they all dance around the primary reason for the abolition issue of our time: Compassion. As Americans who elect politicians who make laws that determine judicial action, we - just as much, if not more so than any of them - are the engines of the death penalty. We are the executioners, not the state, not the federal government. We are responsible for determining the level of compassion we have on those individuals - and we are ultimately the arbiters of whether our society should separate a person’s humanity and right to life from what they have done, no matter how senseless and horrifying.
As I see it, it comes down to this: do we believe that those among us who have committed the most heinous crimes, who have gruesomely deprived others of the right to life - and who are absolutely guilty of their crimes without an iota of doubt - have therefore lost the right to live in our eyes?
For me, the answer is an unequivocal "No." I serve as Jewish clergy and as Jewish Chaplain in prisons and currently in a forensic psychiatric hospital where many individuals with whom I work would have likely faced capital charges for their crimes in other states, despite their mental capacity - think of Jerome Bowden in past years, Warren Lee this month in Georgia, and John Ferguson, who is slated for death in Florida on Aug. 5. The individuals with whom I work are human beings, many of whom have committed atrocious murders as a result of their illness...or sometimes not as directly connected to their illness. With treatment, medication and proper attention, a good number of these individuals realize their plight and turn their lives around, even if those lives will be spent within an institution. (The average stay at my hospital is eight years.) Does this always, happen? Absolutely not. But it does happen more and more as our treatment for mental illness improves and our knowledge of the human mind expands. All the while, we have the opportunity as a society to humanely work with them and learn from them more about what reasons - nature, nurture, both, or other - led them to commit their crimes. What better way than this to do the most we can to ensure that their actions are less likely to be committed again, by them or by anyone else?
As for prisons, in my experience, I do not feel that prison has any rehabilitative value in the aggregate for individuals in custody. Some opportunities do exist in certain prisons to help individuals, and some people do leave prison better off than when they entered. Yet, the damaging, often cruel, and not unusual abuse and neglect that prisoners experience far outweighs any benefits they may provide, in my mind. I would be lying if I said I had any bright ideas for what might replace “correctional” institutions. When we figure out something better, I’ll be first in line to abolish prisons.
The term “Never Again” is often employed in my circles - and in my immediate family’s experience - in reference to the Holocaust: remembering it, studying it, preventing it from repeating itself. I strongly feel the same applies to taking a life. Killing someone who killed another makes us no different from the killer him/herself. Every single time my country executes someone, no matter the reason, as a Jewish American citizen who chooses to remain in this country, I feel that I personally am breaking my promise to my family and to my people. What keeps me here is the hope that through our perseveration and education we can reach a point where enough American citizens feel the same way that we amend the Constitution to make all executions, civilian and military, a shameful relic of our past, like slavery before it, among other things. May it happen soon in our day.
- Cantor Michael Zoosman

Cantor Zoosman,

Thank you for your heartfelt, if in my view incorrect, comment.

Just very quickly: Since you have grave doubts about the utility and morality of either the death penalty or imprisonment, what do you suggest as society's response to crime?

I think Cantor Zoosman may have a point on the morality or at least a partial point of the death penalty / imprisonment, but it doesn't sway me, because I am proponent of both on the utilitarian side - the DP and imprisonment reduce crime - studies that claim otherwise ignore the drastic drop in crime since the mid 70s when criminal laws were tightened up. And in that sense it is moral because those actions save unknown innocents from being future crime victims.

I think the disconnect is between the morality of execution and imprisonment and the morality of the circumstances which lead to crime. Imprisoning criminals and executing criminals reduces crime and that makes all of us safer, hence in my estimation is the epitome of moral.

I also think we could do more to prevent crime by adopting policies which prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place - I don't claim to know what those might be, but I'm certain it is more complicated than people just being born evil or irresponsible.

In my estimation these two propositions are complimentary and not mutually exclusive as some seem to argue.

I believe that they all dance around the primary reason for the abolition issue of our time: Compassion.

Sure is. I feel compassion for people who are locked up for their entire life, and I don't understand how we can abolish the death penalty and then pretend everything is hunky-dory for people rotting in their little cages. That's crazy to me.

In fact, that part of European justice I find deeply disturbing. We have an active and vocal debate not because our system is barbaric, but because our system doesn't try to mask the brutal reality of crime by locking our worst away where no one can see them.

As I see it, it comes down to this: do we believe that those among us who have committed the most heinous crimes, who have gruesomely deprived others of the right to life - and who are absolutely guilty of their crimes without an iota of doubt - have therefore lost the right to live in our eyes?

Okay, how about I rework this. If a person chooses to drive a car, do we accept that they take responsibility for their own life? That is, we all agree that their (perfectly innocent!) actions could have lethal consequences, and we're not going to stop an adult person from making those decisions, and while we might regulate manufacturers to make cars safer, we accept a certain amount of lethal risk.

And we further agree that if someone attacks another violently, it is possible (even without stand your ground laws) that the attacker will be killed by the defender who will be held blameless. This is the law in pretty much the entire world.

That's why I think abolitionists have a weak case. I don't buy the compassion angle: life imprisonment is still a terrible penalty. And I don't see how we can reasonably claim that death as a consequence for heinous crimes is so unfathomable when any of us could die driving to work because we neglected to buckle a damned seatbelt.

The NYT arguement is against all punishment. That is what they want, except, of course, for George Zimmerman, Republicans, and white heterosexual male Christians, whom the NYT supports punishments such as being deprived of employment, punative taxation, and public humilitation.

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