I'm tired of seeing defenses of this antiquated and brutal custom left over from the days when man walked on all fours and believed that some guy in a white beard built the world in seven days. It is simply an inexcusable act of violence that no civilized nation should even seriously consider, let alone actually put into practice. That the United States is among the world leaders in state-sanctioned murder is a sign of how much of a backwater it is in some ways, and the abdication of reason in government that comes when the fanatics take over.
There are many arguments for capital punishment, but they all boil down to one thing, and that is revenge. Arguments related to deterrence simply are not borne out by the facts, and those that claim that only through death can we be sure someone will not commit a future crime ignore the concept of life without the possibility of parole and solitary confinement. Claims of saving money are both belied by the cost of death penalty court proceedings and irrelevant. It's not the murderers who are bankrupting our prison system, it's the nonviolent drug offenders and their ilk. Murder rates have actually dropped in recent years while the prison population has ballooned out of control. The death penalty as a deficit reduction technique is not even a drop in the bucket. It wouldn't even register.
That leaves vengeance as the only reason for the death penalty. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is not the way that civilized people or societies behave. In the old days if someone killed a member of your family you'd seek out a member of his family and kill them to even the score. This lead to century long blood feuds and seriously awkward senior proms. "Hey, I think my cousin is coming after your father with an axe tonight. You look nice though. Is that chiffon?" Now we don't do that anymore because it's too brutal. Instead we look for someone who might have done the crime, almost always someone poor and black, we give him a show trial with an inadequate lawyer and we don't put him down with an axe anymore, we use high voltage electricity or poison in his veins or gas.
I almost feel bad bringing up the absolutely atrocious way that the death penalty is exacted because it's not, strictly speaking, relevant. Still I want to reiterate that cutesy stuff aside there is pervasive race and class bias in terms of who ends up dying for their sins and who does not. It's a stain on America's soul no less clear than that of slavery, albeit less widespread. If this were the only sin of the death penalty it would be more than enough to earn it its extinction, but it's not.
The truth is that the death penalty, even if it were fairly administered, could not ever be just. The unnecessary taking of another human life should never be accepted by ANYONE. When a policeman shoots a suspect we can usually forgive him because someone else's life was directly at risk. Whom does the convict threaten, locked away in a maximum security prison. Other convicts? Isolate him. Guards? Train them better. He is a vulnerable and pathetic creature and it DOES NOT MATTER what he did to put himself in that state. We must have mercy and understanding for those whose lives we hold in our collective hands. Sympathy? no. Forgiveness? not necessarily. Just mercy and understanding. When we deliberately take someone's life from them despite the fact that they no longer pose a threat we denigrate not just them but ourselves. It's not much different from the kid who gets smacked and then goes and kicks the cat. You can't fix injury by inflicting harm on another.
We also must recognize that every human life has value. Even the most twisted and unreformable soul has feelings thoughts and desires. How we treat the worst of us determines how we treat the best of us. Every person should be given the opportunity to atone for what he or she has done and to contribute to society, even if for society's safety he can only be given that choice from inside a guarded cell. He can still speak and write. He can still think and feel.
What it comes down to is that I think any reasonable person will agree that we should always err on the side of life whenever it is possible. Our history as a species is fraught with examples of what were, at the time, "irredeemably evil" people who deserved extermination, but who we now view as innocent victims. Witches, homosexuals, Jews. Each deserved his fate for the unspeakable acts he had committed. Acts of worship, love, ancestry. I believe that in a few generations we will view murderers the same way. As creatures that primitive people could not understand and so killed to make themselves feel better. I do not equate murderers and Jews or homosexuals morally, but in terms of their humanity all are equal in it, and all have the same capacity for pain and suffering.
Whenever I see calls for the death penalty these days someone invariably brings up an example of some vicious monster who deserves to die. Someone who raped and dismembered children, or shot a cop who was just doing his job, or brought about a war that consumed thousands of lives. The advocates speak with blood lust, wanting to destroy the evil by tearing at the flesh that contained it. As if chopping the head off a killer will bring his victims back to life, or restore peace to their families. It won't. And I feel saddened for the piece of your own humanity you invariably surrender when you seek the death of another. When you fail to recognize what we all share despite the chasms that separate us. Where is the line? What divides the man who deserves to die from the one who deserves to live? What level of evil is necessary before someone can forfeit his humanity?
The answer is simple. No amount of evil is sufficient. It is impossible to give up your one true birthright, your humanity, no matter who you worship, or love, or kill. When we take a human life we walk down a road we should never tread upon to a place where we should never go. Do not tread softly on someone's life and dreams, do not tread at all.