A major topic in the debate about whether and under what conditions the United States should admit Syrian refugees is whether vetting them can give us ironclad assurance that no terrorists will sneak in among the legions of innocent people. In essence, many Americans, certainly including conservatives, would like to see an infallible system.
There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the general refugee debate. Obama is correct that American values and history counsel providing a home for those who flee oppression and want freedom. His critics are correct that, just as America cannot be the world'd policeman, it cannot be the world's homeless shelter. For one thing, as Sen. Jeff Sessions has noted, it would cost $55 billion.
I am not at this point going to take sides on the overall merits. My point is more limited: Those who say that we should accept the refugees, while arguing that our vetting system is robust and reliable, admit it's not infallible.
This is wise, since nothing human beings do is infallible. Liberals taking the refugees' side acknowledge, explicitly or otherwise, that we could make a mistake. If we do, and the mistake turns out to be Abdelhamid Abaaoud, we could lose dozens or hundreds of innocents to a gruesome terrorist attack. But we should open our borders anyway, they say, because the risk, though grave, is small, and the payoff large.
Question: Why do liberals not see the same thing in the death penalty debate? The stakes are high (as they are in dealing with terrorism) and the system cannot be made infallible (as with vetting for Jihadists). But the risk of executing the innocent is extremely small, and the payoff -- the only punishment that even remotely fits the crime -- large.
This is what abolitionists miss: Human life does not provide the luxury of absolutes. We live in a world of tradeoff's, a world in which infallibility is unavailable. Just as in the refugee debate, the outcome depends on whether what you get is worth what you give up. In keeping the death penalty for ghastly murder, it is.