Let me begin tackling this complex issue by saying I am not against the death penalty. However, I believe it is used far too often. Executions should be extremely rare and only in the most dire of circumstances. However, I can't touch on solely the death penalty without exploring other issues to support my position.
When is Killing Someone Okay?
This is actually a very simple question to answer. In truth, all killing is inherently wrong. This is not a Biblical argument. The moment you interfere with someone's life – interfere implies that the subject is not willingly allowing you to interact – you are committing a wrongdoing. You basically are interfering with that person's natural course of life. The gravest wrong, obviously, is to end that other life, because you are completely cutting off that course. All life is designed in such a way that even in 100% ideal circumstances, it will eventually end. No form of life is immortal.
Therefore, the best we can hope to do is have mitigating circumstances that make committing that wrong a little more bearable. Really, there is only one relevant "mitigating circumstance": when it is far more dangerous for you to allow that life to go on, it is better for you to end the other life. Basically, that's what war or shooting a burglar who breaks into your house is all about. If someone is putting your life in danger, you have to defend yourself. No one should have a problem with this. However, you are still committing a wrongdoing. You are still ending a life: it's just you are being put into a sticky situation and that's really the best you can do.
You do not have that kind of authority over someone else's life. No one does. That's why killing, no matter the circumstance, is wrong. Yet routinely, we pretend like we have that authority and pass lethal judgment on prisoners. What people don't realize, I think, is that the death penalty is still killing. Someone still has to kill the person. It doesn't matter the method. Whether it's the guy who flips a switch, a guy who sticks a needle into someone, or a guy who removes the support to allow a hanging person to fall, someone still killed that person. Quite frankly, we haven't the right. We may have a government that says we have that right, but killing criminals out of punishment is not a mitigating factor. After all, how can you teach a dead person a lesson? A prisoner is someone who is almost always completely defenseless: usually shackled and kept under guard. This is not a person who is actively threatening your life, or anyone else's life. Therefore, it is not right to kill him. Only in the most extreme cases, where keeping someone alive is truly dangerous, should the death penalty be employed.
Prisons: Built for Useless Punishment
I think this is something that most people simply don't think about. Simply punishing people is almost always useless. If you really want to help somebody, you have to teach them how to overcome whatever obstacle is in the way. Think of this in a war context: the truth of the matter is that military force is not what resolves the conflict. It's how you rebuild afterward that is the real resolution. The Allies fought Germany, Italy, and Japan not too long ago. The war was especially horrific due to genocide and scale. If we had simply bombed Germany, nuked Japan, and left, the Allies may still have won in a military sense. But that is not enough. You do not win the war until you can convince everyone to put down their arms and stop fighting. This is why all three nations are on friendly terms with the Allies these days. This is the problem with the War on Terror. It's very easy to say that we should just turn the Middle East into a parking lot. But in truth, that would not stop the war. Someone, somewhere, would pick up the cause and resume the fight. It's not until you stop fighting and convince everyone that it's stupid that you truly win.
Come on, guys. Think. When someone beats your ass, are you more or less likely to turn and help that person? The only time I've ever seen the "beat someone to gain that person's help" method work out is in video games.
This brings us to One of the Great Problems that Plagues Us Today. That problem is the U.S. prison system. The current system basically amounts to a big "screw you" as we dump people into some box and leave them to rot for an arbitrary amount of time. In the mean time – in most cases – those people are further beaten, neglected, or tortured. Most learn few, if any, useful skills that would allow them to become productive members of society once the term is up. Not surprisingly, when people face long prison terms, they go right back to crime upon release.
Doesn't this make sense to you? I honestly think most people just really don't think about it in that way. One example? Take Rush Limbaugh. The windbag used to blast drug users and criminals as failures who should just be locked up forever. Ironically enough, the guy turns out to be a drug user himself. Once he had it, it was a serious disease and he needed care and the prayers of his adoring fans to get him through. Elliot Spitzer blasted the Grand Theft Auto games for having prostitutes, then gets nailed in a prostitution ring himself. Priests preach about how wrong homosexuality is, and yet a large number of them were caught molesting boys.
Problems can overcome anybody, from the very wealthy to the very poor.
Let me give you another example. I was just in a discussion with my mom's fiance the other day. He was watching the news and there was a story about some guy who got a fairly lengthy sentence for drug use. He was very happy about the jail time. I happened to overhear this and decided to chime in. The dialogue is from my memory, so while it's not 100% accurate, the meaning is still there.
"Why are you happy about that?" I asked.
"All these druggies need to be locked away," he replied. "They'll never amount to anything."
"Right," I replied. "Because they're in jail. Jail doesn't work. All research on successful drug policy shows that treatment needs to be increased."
"Do you know how many people still relapse even when they go to treatment?" he shot back.
"Quite a few. But still way less than those who go to jail," I replied. "You know how I know that? Because you, in fact, are in treatment right now."
He looked shocked, but nothing came out of his mouth. Then, finally, it came out. "Wow…you're right. I never thought of it that way."
My mom's fiance, you see, has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for over twenty years. Keep in mind that although he is definitely not as intelligent as I am, he is far from stupid. He's certainly smarter than most people I meet. But it really never occurred to him to think of it that way. His story is a classic alcohol story: he was powerless over alcohol. He would drink, wake up hours later with his family gone, and not know where he was, how he got there, or why his family was gone. But almost every person who successfully gets over an addiction will tell you that it is almost impossible to do it alone. Instead, he's a regular member of a very supportive group. The whole group, after all, is in exactly the same boat he's in: people who took alcohol to the extreme and let it control their lives. Do many – maybe even most – people still relapse and never truly conquer their shortcomings? Sure. But is treatment more effective? Absolutely. If AA didn't work, AA wouldn't exist.
That's the problem with jail. Making a man serve jail time for rape or robbery isn't going to teach him anything. It's just going to make him angrier and angrier and put him further and further into the hole. Years later, when society has moved on and he can't get a job anywhere, what do you think he's going to do? The job thing is no exaggeration, either. I don't exactly work in a high class place, and although our application specifically states that criminal convictions will not necessarily bar you from employment, I can definitively tell you that it does. That application is just the bullshit and chips necessary for the store to conform to the useless standards the government employs to somehow making everything some arbitrary definition of fair. And again, I don't work in a high-profile place. Imagine if you tried to work at a real job, with a real future? If you're convicted of a crime, they're not gonna help you!
At that point, society has failed. If you can't get the help that you need, you might as well be dead. You're never going to amount to anything: society is going to make sure of that. Really, the prison system should be changed to one of two things: either the perfectly reasonable, logical standard I suggest, or make any sentence of longer than a year or two automatically warrant the death penalty. Either or.
Society: Proof that I'm Right
Personal responsibility only goes so far. Mind you, I'm a big advocate of personal responsibility. I think parents should monitor what their kids do. I think parents should decide for themselves what their kids can and can't watch or play. I absolutely hate when some blowhard tells me that I can't do this or watch that. But it only goes so far.
How do I know? There is a certain form of society where the only rule is personal responsibility. No one answers to anyone, and everyone fends for themselves. It's called anarchy. Stupid teenagers may not understand it, but society realized that anarchy doesn't work centuries ago.
Quick. Which countries are the most successful? The ones that help each other out the most and treat people the fairest. This is the difference between the United States and, say, North Korea. We're successful because we all decided that we needed to work together to get anything done and that expecting each person to take care of every single thing by themselves is ridiculous. Of course, some people still cling to the latter belief, but that doesn't make them right. I don't assume it's malice on their part. I just assume that it's just the simple case of people not taking the time to think. It certainly seems like people don't do that too often anymore, wouldn't you say? And yet, the United States hasn't been doing too well in the last, oh, seven or eight years. The economy hasn't been doing well. Lots of people hate us. Jobs are leaving the country. Anyone would tell you that those are signs that the nation is not too successful right now. And look what else has happened. Civil rights have been compromised. We torture prisoners. You can legally be spied on any occasion for any reason at all without your consent. Basically, we're doing all those wrong things that we usually condemn others for doing. We already know it doesn't work: we have centuries of human history to look at for evidence!
You don't have to agree with me. But it doesn't make what I'm saying any less right.