One of the major themes of abolitionism is that because the death penalty unavoidably risks killing the innocent -- and that sooner or later this is bound to happen -- it must end.
The premise is right. The conclusion is wrong. It rests on the tacit view that the government's killing the innocent is an unacceptable price to pay, no matter how just the cause otherwise might be.
There are two problems. One is that this view is false. The other is that, not unrelatedly, almost no one believes it.
This was brought home to me graphically this weekend, when I read this article in the New York Review of Books. As a nation, we killed thousands of innocents because, though it was a mind-bending moral price, it was worth it, given the stakes.
The article is a review of a new book, Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa. This is the part that jumped out at me (emphasis added):
The huge US offensive in Okinawa--the only part of Japan where US forces fought on the ground--lasted eighty-two days in the spring of 1945 and cost about as many lives altogether as the atom bombs themselves. The US invading force of 1,050 ships carrying 548,000 men vastly outnumbered the 110,000 Japanese soldiers defending the island. But the Japanese held out with remarkable tenacity, and 77,000 Japanese soldiers and over 140,000 civilians would be killed before the US could declare victory.
By the spring of 1945, Japan, starving and depleted, had lost its capacity (if it ever had one) to attack the continental United States. So exacting anything like that number of civilian casualties cannot be thought of as necessary to protect the country, even on the assumption that it could be thought of as necessary to win that particular battle.
Why, then, did our country kill over 140,000 civilians? Because we're brutal and savage? Because the United States is bent on world domination? Because we revel in death?
Some might give those answers, sure. But the great majority would give the obvious and correct answer: We killed over 140,000 civilians because, in the circumstances, it was worth the candle.
It's a staggering moral price; indeed, to my mind, it's incomprehensible. In less than three months, we killed a hundred times more innocents than all the guilty murderers we've executed in the last 50 years.
Only a dishonest man could say there's no possibility we'll execute an innocent person. And only an unspeakably morally callous one could say that's anything but a steep, even a grotesque, price. But only a person disconnected from reality could say that, for that reason, killing by the government is never justified, ever, period.
It depends on what you get. When you get, for example, the only justice that even remotely fits McVeigh or Bundy or Gacy or the torture/murderers of children, then what you get is worth the price, fearsome though it is.