When the Death Penalty is Necessary

bostonbomberYesterday the Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for his crime. Which brings the question of the death penalty to mind. We know the PBS/Progressive/Europeanish faction hates the death penalty, largely because their role models, the Western European nanny-states, have banned it and declared it ‘uncivilized’. But just because fools hate something doesn’t mean wise men have to be for it.

I used to consider myself anti-death-penalty. My home state of Michigan outlawed the death penalty some time in the 1850s, and that’s pretty much OK with me. But as I’ve matured and thought things over, I have to account for the fact that many good and decent people of the past have accepted the death penalty as a sad necessity for an ordered society. In the laws of the Old Testament of the Bible, many acts called for the death penalty. Jesus Christ never banned it— even though he himself was executed. Saint Paul, author of many of the epistles of the New Testament, also eventually an execution victim, never objected to it. As an intelligent person I believe I must take into account that just because many modern people believe the only decent approach is to ban the death penalty, there are many people who are/were intelligent, thoughtful and good who thought the death penalty was right.

In many cases, the death penalty is clearly an option. Some guy kills his wife and their children, you could execute him or give him life-without-parole or give him life-with-parole and you have the impression of the man that even if you let him out of prison early, he’s not going to go out and kill anyone else.

But there are other circumstances where it seems that the death penalty— if you believe in it at all— is called for. Some of these circumstances mostly apply to the past, while others are still with us today. Here is my look at such circumstances:

  1. Societies that don’t have the concept of prolonged imprisonment as a punishment. This applies to many civilizations of the past. They had prisons, but those prisons were just a holding area to keep someone until the authorities decided what to do with them. If a man spent five years in such a prison, his society wouldn’t look on those five years as a punishment, but as five years in which he escaped being punished. Punishment meant things like being flogged, amputations for some crimes, in some cultures, or death. Without the concept of life imprisonment as a punishment, you couldn’t ban the death penalty without having to face the concept that you’d be letting murderers loose, possibly to kill again.
  2. Nomadic or highly primitive societies without the capacity to build functional prisons. How would a nomadic tribe go about giving a murderer life imprisonment? You’d have to assign a group of men to do nothing but guard the murderer as your tribe moved from place to place. If a tribe did that, they would lose out on the labor power of the men assigned as guards, which would hurt the tribe’s ability to feed itself. If the tribe were attacked, it would have to do without the guards joining in the defense. Even tribes that were not nomadic, in primitive circumstances, could not manage to keep their murderers imprisoned for life. They might have heard of the concept of imprisonment-as-punishment, might even think it is superior, but they don’t have the material ability to carry it out without endangering the tribe’s survival.
  3. Societies with ‘leaky’ prisons. This can happen even in modern times, though normally only in Third World countries, and in rural/remote sections of the country. If criminals can regularly break their confederates out of prison, or bribe the guards and warden to let their confederates out, you can’t really sentence a murderer to life imprisonment as a substitute for the death penalty with any hope that he will still be in prison for any length of time.
  4. Societies with out-of-control liberal judges. We think we have a lot of them here in the US. But imagine if it were worse. Imagine we have enough of such judges that the average person sentenced to life-without-parole would be back on the streets within five years because some judge thought the man’s rights were being violated. If we couldn’t get rid of such judges, keeping the death penalty would be one way to keep some of the worst murderers off the streets— though those same liberal judges would try to get rid of the death penalty.
  5. Killers who kill in prison. The hope we have when we sentence a murderer to life-without-parole is that he will not be able to do any more killing. If an inmate kills within the prison, especially if he has made many violent attacks short of murder while in prison, death may be the best way to get the killing stopped.
  6. Serial killers. These are people who have made a habit of killing. This is the worst type of bad habit imaginable. Locking a serial killer up may stop him killing during his imprisonment, but it will never be safe to let him out. And the crime is so over-the-top evil it’s kind of hard not to consider the death penalty in such cases. That being said, many captured serial killers are model prisoners, not violent, and some cooperate with scientific studies of serial killers. In my opinion, it’s only the worst of the serial killers that need the death penalty.
  7. Killers whose crimes are an act of war. Think of the Oklahoma City Bombing or the Boston Marathon Bombing. These are killers who considered their killing an act of war against our society, and who wanted their crimes to be imitated by others. If enemy soldiers came pouring over our borders, we’d send our military to stop them with deadly force, even though some of those enemy soldiers would certainly die. Killing killers whose crimes were meant as an act of war shows that we take such deeds very seriously.

As a Christian, I don’t delight in the idea of the death of any person, no matter how wicked that person is. We are all sinners, all have done wicked things. And I don’t like the idea of a murderer ending up in hell. I hope every murderer turns to Christ in the end. But I can’t ignore the victims of crime, whose blood cries out for justice, and the possible future victims some of the most dangerous killers might take. I don’t like the thought, but I am beginning to believe that in some cases, such as the Boston Marathon Bombing, the death penalty may be the better way to deal with it.

What do you think about the sentence in the Boston Marathon bombing case? What sentence do you think would be the most just?


3 thoughts on “When the Death Penalty is Necessary

  1. I like your analysis. The argument against the death penalty, it seems to me, is not that “killing is wrong, so we musn’t be hypocrites who kill criminals,” but “every malefactor should have to live with the consequences of his crime, so that he can repent.” When I was a kid, prisons were still called penitentiaries, for just this reason — the criminal was made to suffer (no TV, no conjugal visits, no luxuries of any kind) so that he would turn from a life of crime. When it seems clear that the criminal will never repent (or, in some cases of mental disturbance, cannot change), then he must be kept from society, if this can be done safely, or executed.

    There is also the element of the example given to the rest of society, which is why in the ancient world (and still in some primitive parts of our contemporary world) criminals were given harsh, public punishments, swiftly carried out for all to see. If prisons really were still ordered toward punishment and repentance, I think we would have no need for the death penalty. As things are, though, both our “justice” system and our prisons are so corrupt that they seem to serve only to make bad people worse, which is not only dangerous but demoralizing for the rest of us.

    I must admit, I feel no sorrow that Tsarnaev will be executed. I wish it were done cleanly and publicly, with a guillotine or a firing squad — not because I’m bloodthirsty (I don’t even swat flies), but because it would provide an edifying example: to criminals, to show them real consequences for terrorism, and to the law-abiding public, to show them what a terrible thing it is to kill and be killed.

  2. Still have to go with St. John Paul: is it possible to defend society—against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev specifically, not merely against a category he represents—without recourse to the death penalty?

    It has been remarked that St. John Paul represents a shift from traditional understandings of the death penalty as deserved retribution for heinous crime to a position that recognizes only defense as a justification.

    I’ve for some time maintained that this change actually fits the change in prevailing mode of government in modern times. When we were ruled by kings, they were in place through forces beyond our control, and being theists we could take their authority, like everything else in our lives that does not reflect our will, as representing the divine will. Therefore their decision to execute a prisoner could reflect divine prerogatives such as meting out deserved fates. Now, though, we all live under states calling themselves democracies or republics, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” as Jefferson put it. So they cannot have any authority the governed don’t have, including that of meting out deserved fates. We do have the authority to use force in self-defense, even lethal force if necessary, so only on that authority can the state legitimately kill.

    Dr. Nicholas, I agree with the public execution aspect. It is, however, necessary to ensure that Tsarnaev’s execution cannot be interpreted as a martyrdom. Some say that being executed by a woman will deprive him of a martyr’s reward; I have not investigated that claim myself.

  3. Hieronymus, I think there would be no lack of female citizens willing personally to put Tsarnaev to death. Perhaps that is a sad commentary on our bloodthirsty society. In fact, though, now that I think of it, I believe that choosing executioners by lottery, as we do for jury duty, would be another practice that would hammer home the gravity of capital punishment, and just might ensure that the death penalty was used only when truly necessary. I remember once reading something by Albert Camus, who grew up in Algeria, where public executions are (or were) still practiced, and the public (adult males, I guess) were expected to attend. When he was about 12 his father insisted that he attend an execution in the town square, and he was so sickened by the spectacle that he became strongly opposed to capital punishment. Which might have been why his father wanted him there.

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