What Justice?

Editorial by Chris Lott

Tom writes eloquently about the death penalty in his editorial this month, and he is almost persuasive. However, I think that he ultimately ends up missing the boat. (In a way, writing my editorial this way is kind of sandbagging, since I am sure Tom had no idea I was not finished with mine when he mailed his editorial to me or that I would be responding to him in this way. But the opportunity is just too good to pass up… and it is part of our mission at Eclectica to be interactive and open as editors, after all.)

Tom trots out the usual arguments in favor of the death penalty, but all of them rest upon a few basic assumptions which I find difficult to accept, and which are almost always a part of the pro-death penalty platform. The first, and most important of these, is the concept of justice. The death penalty "isn't about revenge" Tom maintains, and it "isn't about prevention." Instead, we are supposed to believe that it is about justice. But from where does this justice come? What is this justice anyway? Whose justice are we talking about? Tom proceeds to base his entire argument upon a spiritual/metaphysical assumption about the existence and nature of justice. While I am glad that Tom didn't resort to capitalizing the word justice in the way of the Ancient Greeks, he may as well have; all of the implications of his argument rest upon just such a determination.

I can only presume that at some time since arriving in Arizona last fall, Tom has either had a conversation with a divine being, ascended and viewed the world of Platonic forms, or otherwise come into contact with the internal mechanisms of the universe. I say this because I know he is not an ignorant man, and it takes an awful (in the classic sense of awe-full) lot of security to make pronouncements about things like "justice," particularly in the context of taking the life of another human being. Justice does not exist anywhere except in the human mind. Justice is a concept that is based upon a pattern which we create through our own conceptual categories. Yes, I am vehemently against the death penalty… does this mean that I have no access to the justice that Tom calls upon to rationalize the state's taking of a life, and that what I feel is "justice" is just an aberration or a perversion? Whose justice are we talking about when it comes to putting a man to death? It certainly isn't MINE-- and the only way that someone can claim that my own understanding of justice is wrong is by assuming a concept of justice which is "right" in comparison. This is a mightily convenient assumption as long as Tom wants to forget that such definitional assumptions cut both ways.

Death penalty advocates are in a harsh position because they want to take the life away from a human being-- an inarguably irrevocable action-- and convincing others that it is alright to do so demands persuasive and complete evidence. I, on the other hand, am under no such obligation. I don't need to formulate a theory of what justice REALLY is (if I believed in such a thing), I only need to show the inadequacy of taking the radical action of killing another human being in the name of such a flimsy thing as "justice." I am not sure whether to be happy or terrified that Tom is confident enough in a vague, metaphysical assumption such as justice that he would throw the switch that executes a man. And let us make no mistake-- if one is going to claim the efficacy and just nature of the death penalty, then he or she must be willing to (and I would argue should be required to) pull the lever, throw the switch or fire the bullet which will enact it.

Tom also makes the constant mistake of conflating issues and creating straw-man arguments for the opposition. He writes that "in the case of real-life murderers who have been tried and found guilty of atrocities sufficient to warrant the death sentence, the greater wrong would be in letting their crimes go unpunished." Well, I don't think it is a feather in the cap of the death-penalty advocate to make this assertion because, frankly, almost everyone on both sides must feel this way. The question is not about going unpunished-- we all want to punish those convicted of crimes-- the question is about whether killing someone is a just punishment or not! Similarly, Tom makes one of my main points for me when he speaks of parents loving their children and wanting to grant them second chances (though I think more conflation by inserting terminology like "pardons" and "paroles" in this kind of editorial is a bit disingenuous. When was the last time a mother put her child on parole?). The parallel he is drawing between society and parents is obvious, but not as clearly on his side as he would like to think. Presumably, parents who actually DID kill their children as punishment would be among those who Tom would want to put to death… I hope that the irony here is clear enough that I don't need to point it out. And if he would like to make the argument that society is NOT acting as the parent and thus must let go of the desire to give second-chances, then what is said society doing punishing anyone in the first place? By what right do they perform these acts? (I guess now would be the time to resurrect the mangy specter of "justice")

Tom ends his editorial by speaking of the death penalty as a "consequence." The rhetorical use of this term is smart-- because if one doesn’t think too hard about the word, one misses the confusion of inevitability with human choice. Stepping off the edge of a tall building causes one to fall. THAT is a consequence. A consequence is the result of an action-- and the connotation of the term is that such a result is natural, inevitable and undeniable without external meddling. The death penalty as a punishment in the name of justice is nothing of the kind. The death penalty is an artificially conceived and performed action that has nothing to do with consequence. In point of fact, very little in our world has to do with consequences, which are much more a matter of Darwin than Dooley.

We must, as members of society, learn to grow up and take responsibility for all aspects of the world we live in. It seems to be a common trait of societies that as they advance technologically and materially, they begin to care more and more about reaping rewards and claiming rights, and less and less about those things which demand their effort, time and money. Taking responsibility means dealing with the problems not in the most cost-efficient way, nor in the quickest way, nor in a way which mirrors the problem itself, but in a way which keeps in mind the imperfections of all human beings. It might be expensive, and it could well be that the death penalty could be made less expensive than housing criminals for all or most of their lives (though I doubt this because of cynicism about politics and being personally guilty of placing a very high value on a human life-- high enough that I will and do demand that those facing the death penalty be allowed every conceivable appeal and right of law. Further, if Tom places such a high value on human life that he feels taking it away is a crime punishable by death, then how many innocent people would need to be put to death before that cost would more than equal the monetary cost of simple, permanent incarceration? I would argue no more than one… perhaps Tom has different ideas), but none of these are the point. Killing off the violent makes no more sense than killing off the weak, the old, the sick or the fat because of their cost to society. Killing violent criminals off in the name of "justice" makes no more sense than killing them off in the name of Allah or Aum or Aryan purity-- none of them are universal, none of them are MY justice, none of them are anything more than simple beliefs which are created through a variety of forces and circumstances. Do you really want to gamble taking people's lives away for such frail reasons?

Finally, I have personal experience with someone who is a murderer and who, according to Tom's schema, should have been killed. My uncle, Anthony Brown (whose work appears in these very pages each month), killed a cab-driver nearly twenty-years ago, and is still in prison for it to this day. Yet, even from behind bars, he has proven to be a potent, positive force for good in the lives of many people. He has accomplished more than most people I know who are free, and has distinguished himself in ways that are remarkable by any standards. From his writing to his bonsai trees, from his relatives to his wife and her children, from the lives he saved as an emergency medical technician to the fact that it is owing to his strength that I myself am able to deal with psychological forces that would end my life, this convicted murderer who should have been killed by the state long ago has been a force of perceptible good. If the "consequence" of murder is the murderer's death, then what is the consequence of all of the good that he has done? What is the consequence of the good and the potential of others who Tom would have put to death?

In Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," a violent criminal called the Misfit captures and eventually kills a family. The last person to die is the grandmother, who is vitriolic and backbiting and self-righteous-- right up until she is about to die. At this point she becomes sweet and spiritual and almost convinces the Misfit of his own evil-- but finally he gets upset and shoots her, remarking that "she could have been a good woman if there'd been someone holding a gun up to her head." I don’t want to live in a society that needs to have guns held to its head in order to feel safe OR to do the right thing… but more than that, I don't want to live in, nor will I condone actions that make, a society a kind of misfit itself, killing because of imperfections and actions that they feel are not "right" or "just."

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