♣ Capital punishment differs quite drastically from any other criminal punishment used by American state justice systems today. As the only true physically invasive criminal punishment left in the States, it’s a leap. It’s been said that one can judge a civilization by its justice system. Today US justice systems go from simply depriving convicted criminals of their freedom to depriving them of their lives.
There’s little or no gradation in between, at least in legal terms. Systems jump from an outward mode of punishment, incarceration, to a severely invasive one, coincidentally the most dramatic, most extreme, most imperious, most physically invasive punishment of all, that of state-imposed death, capital punishment.
There’s a yawning gap between the two and two predominant reasons why. First is the fact that not one other physically invasive criminal punishment, not a single other more extreme but less than mortal punishment subtly graduating toward capital punishment, not so much as a lone form of corporal punishment bides today in any corner of the USA.
It’s no surprise that people have lost touch with all physically invasive punishment and its unfortunate victims, no less so with the one heinous form of penalization and its own victims still at large in our technologic citadel of ruth, compassion and human rights, the cruelest, most violent, most violating punishment still in use by these United States in so-called modern times, capital punishment.
With no threat of physically invasive punishment for his own comparably mild infractions, the average man has lost identification with his fellow sinners whose wrongdoing may or may not be tantamount to crime. He’s even more profoundly lost identification with criminals and most profoundly with criminals who kill.
Surely murderers seem to the average man like abject foreigners, like separate, monstrous albeit humanoid aliens, like rare, ferocious outside invaders. Though likely a threat, wanton killers are no less human, essentially no less valuable and inviolate souls than anybody else.
They’re no less prone to mental and physical anguish, no less subject to mortal fear and loathing at the hands of the state, for them a dark, encroaching force resolved to end their lives. They’re no less unnerved at the hands of a cold, ascendant, unduly officious government engine geared toward putting them to death, at the hands of we their unsympathetic fellow sinners, their own innately flawed yet unrelenting counterparts who condemn them, who for all intents and purposes help inflict their chastisement upon them, in effect kill them as they have killed and as a result come out no less murderous than they, sometimes more so since government kills in cold blood and criminals often don’t.
Above the nasty threat of all less extreme physically invasive punishment, corporal punishment that is, the average man has grown less tolerant of his fellow sinners, lost more empathy for this marginal if no less human slice of the population and largely done so via detachment.
Not that the blight of corporal punishment, even cast in its tamest form, should ever rear its ugly head again but must the average man by dint of unenlightened jurisprudence, remain a virtual killer, a barbarian, a ghoul by association, by default, in this the golden age, the very gilded center of enlightenment? No wonder violence thrives in America.
Of course, no one today being of warm heart and healthy mind wants recurrence of corporal punishment even if such a cruel approach to wrongdoing would put us in closer touch with the lot of our fellow sinners.
Imagine a penal system in which mild offenders are tarred, feathered and handily ridden from town on rails, in which minor culprits are put to the stock and shamed in the town square or worse, a penal system in which human hands are lopped off to punish theft, human tongues cut out to punish treason, human genitalia maimed to punish adultery.
Imagine a brutal system wherein various forms of torture are used and every zone of the human anatomy lies completely open to chastisement and mutilation in some morbid service to justice or information-gathering.
It’s a chilling thought and we’re fortunate such physically invasive criminal punishments haven’t been unleashed on modern America. We’re thrilled to know they’re long gone and horrified at the thought of corporal punishment or torture being resurrected one day. Today we deem both tacks cruel, excessive, repugnant and superfluous, beyond the pale, even sick.
We’re put off by any form of corporal punishment, somewhat because we’ve grown more enlightened, more humane and empathetic toward our many fellow sinners over the years but in the main because we sense the probability that physically invasive punishments for the many lesser crimes, even small moral infractions committed every day, might’ve become too commonplace, too close to us for comfort had the practice of corporal punishment ever penetrated modern American culture.
With the prevalence of lesser crimes, physically invasive punishments might’ve been much more prone to visit someone we know or love, maybe us in fact, had such measures made their way to the present. What innocent traveler to a third world country hasn’t thought with a surge of dread about inadvertently running afoul of some obscure law, some strange moral mandate or somehow being falsely accused of having done wrong and being faced with some horrid Draconian cummupance?
No longer exposed to corporal punishment, moderns all over the world have grown more and more detached from this cruel tack, this secondary form of physically invasive punishment over the centuries and, in keeping, farther and farther removed from hard crime and criminals, from penalties and the penal system in general.
The American people are no exception. We’re just as effected as anyone else by a numbing sense of separation from crime and punishment. We’re not given much say in official decisions reached in connection to any of these exotic issues either.
It stands to reason, then, that while aghast at the prospect of punishments that hurt, maim and cripple, repulsed by the world’s every conceivable brand of state-sponsored human suffering past and present, a culture like ours can still abide the callousness, deep physical invasiveness, brutality and license inherent in capital punishment.
What punitive measure is more physically invasive of human beings than the cold, deliberate government imposition of death, especially given that only physical suffering in the process has been broached, leaving mental and emotional anguish unaddressed?
Still, as long as we’ve no direct connection to it, as long as it tends to linger out of sight and out of mind, we can abide the practice of psychopathically cold, detached government execution, abide deliberate, banal, ceremonious killing, abide calculated, systemic imposition of death, the remote, insensate snuffing out of human life. Robotic human slaughter bodes fine, wholesome, somehow antiseptic when advised, endorsed and carried out by an impersonal government institution.
We can abide the state’s remorseless, institutional, wholly non-productive killing of human beings to accomplish death alone, to achieve death for death’s sake despite the state’s misconceived, ill-perceived aims toward an act of nobility, its costly and yet enduringly impotent message to an insensible criminal part of our population, its false, self-aggrandizing notion of good will, its empty, dispensational and conciliatory gesture of righteous indignation, of justice or of closure.
In addition, most citizens feel relatively comfortable and secure, even coddled in America today. From our high, posh, ever-distant perch we can more easily abide the state’s imperious, hypocritical, supercilious, sanctimonious intrusion into the hallowed inner sanctum of another human life, its haughty condemnation of the irrevocable frailty endemic to the human race at large, its profane transgression against that undeniable sanctity which exalts human life, that sanctity which demands, downright frames human rights as a matter of course, that sanctity which has made human rights nothing less than a moral imperative, the conventional wisdom, for every democratic nation in the world.
It’s just this astutely, almost universally apprehended and understood sanctity, the sanctity of all human life, which molds the very cornerstone of man’s morality, imbues all his values and priorities, his codes of behavior, rule of law, traditions, his myths, lore and legends, this sanctity which ultimately informs man’s image and esteem of himself and others.
Can the state kill any human being for any reason without violating the sanctity of all human life, without negating and ultimately fracturing that very cornerstone of man’s morality, seriously skewing those values and priorities, those codes of behavior, those laws, traditions, myths, lore and legends which inevitably inform his image and esteem of himself and others?
One thing is certain. The state cannot kill without passing down through all these veins to the very cornerstone itself and up to man again its sacrosanct permission to kill, its veritable mandate to kill quite implicit in its poignant intimation there exists along the sacred continuum of humanitarian values, of grace, logic, meaning and principles an anomaly, an unnatural blip, a bizaare warp of time and space, a breech wherein what’s real can be unreal, what’s true can be untrue and killing human beings can be right.
The state denies man completely, denies human life absolutely in killing even that which it deems the least of men. In their nature, at the core, all men are the same, invaluable, sacrosanct, miraculous, inviolate. An act of murder reduces a man’s character and standing, not the nature or quality of his innate humanness. All men are worthy of forgiveness and salvation because all men, despite their activities, consist of this fundimental quality, this inestimable value, whether or not we can see it in them. If we fail attempts to see it in them, we all become susceptible to our neighbor’s prejudicial discretion, his prospective envy, ill will, disregard and bias. We allay his love, reason, humility, empathy and forbearance. We discourage his crucial forgiveness. By this enervated standard no one is honored or safe.
Indeed, why does any modern state advocating a death penalty take its lead from angry, vengeful, unforgiving citizens, those fearful, bereaved, accusatory or otherwise under duress, those for whatever reason ignoble, small-minded and condescending, when surely cooler heads, those attuned to larger issues, keen to the moral, ethical and humane implications of punishment should prevail? “The quality of mercy is not strained,” Shakespeare tells us.
Killing is always wrong. No person, no power, no collective, no hallowed institution can truly hold respect for human life and kill, unless absolutely forced or inevitably coerced into doing so and even then, however inescapable, however much forgiven the defender, well exonerated of guilt, disconnected from the act and purified by penitence, by God himself, even then, intrinsically, the nature, the very consequence of killing is wrong. Family
No person, no power, no collective, no hallowed institution can presume to kill a human being without contradicting both nature and logic, without cheapening human life, without establishing an obstinate precedent for killing, bidding others to kill, begging frivolous excuses to kill, without weakening the culture, courting constant disaster, leaving all men, indeed our progeny in everlasting peril for their lives.
Regrettably, the cornerstone’s been dashed. Long chipped and cracked, this monolith, this sprawling foundation, this quintessential, all-encompassing bulwark has been gravely compromised. It has shrunk. It has shifted its load. All it elevates, all it engenders and upholds has been skewed and rendered frighteningly precarious. All true meaning and sustenance in life is in the restoration and maintenance of this precious stone, the source of all truth, logic, sense, religion, philosophy and human endeavor. The clutch of all peace, freedom, harmony and solace, all earthly wellbeing, is this indispensable stone, our one common, consummate, consensual if fatedly composite image of God or good or positivity in this world.
The shape, measure, quality and endurance of these essentials are precisely commensurate with and totally contingent upon the integrity of this one crucial cornerstone, this bulwark, this foundation and source. We control it. We nurture it, responsibly or irresponsibly. We must daily rediscover it, honor it, restore and maintain it. To do so we must first honor life, all life just as fully and completely as possible. This is our own personal choice as much more than a society, more than a culture. This is not some dream, some giant, vague, ephemeral pie in the sky. We the people set the pace, set our characters, set priorities, make, repeal and remake laws, actively forge or have forged our future.
Rationalization is our enemy. Once we start we can’t stop. Soon we justify anything and have. Common sense dictates we cannot honor life wholeheartedly without honoring all life. We cannot kill under any circumstances without throwing open the door of killing to all and once again, perhaps even more deeply, chipping and cracking that all-important cornerstone of our wellbeing.
How can we espouse, honor and celebrate the dignity, the sanctity of all human life, the state’s protection of our sacred human rights and then so easily acquiesce to a practice which defiles these, lays them all to waste for the sake of pride, anger, revenge, practicality or any other manner of lame and selfish excuse, acquiesce to a gross inconsistency of tolerance, a dirth of humility and self-abjuration which makes small a man and so diminishes all of us, invites corruption and decline, becomes the precarious groundwork for eternal conflict?
How can we Americans, a modern, mainly enlightened group, a world class culture, extinguish human life with any degree of justification, of righteousness or conscience, in any case, alone or as a group, set the precedent for killing, cue development of rationalizations for killing bound by human nature to grow much lamer all the time, to desensitize man, make lighter of killing day by day, make stronger and stronger man’s baser impulse to kill man?
How can we, the urbane, sophisticated members of an advanced culture deign to assail our inviolate sibling without assailing ourselves? How can we kill without blame, without sinning against ourselves, without fashioning a crime against the dignity and sanctity of our own interwoven humanity, no matter what the excuse, take the lives of our iniquitous brothers and sisters and not see glaring in ourselves, not highlight for each other our own inexorable iniquity? If this iniquity is not quite apparent in our natures, is it not quite obvious in our willingness to see our unfortunate fellows in sin killed in any circumstances? There but for uncontrollable circumstances, fickle fate or the random grace of God go we.
Besides, the one inescapable point, maybe the ultimate point in the argument against all extreme physically invasive punishments, like the point against crime itself, is precisely their invasiveness. How do we dare stand aghast, wince in moral dread at the awful gore of corporal punishment and justify the infinitely more grotesque extreme of capital punishment, allow it to continue in our midst?
To begin with, we’re virtually out of touch with crime and punishment, out of touch with acts of murder and the death penalty. Ions in a shell, in an age whose population knows no real relationship to crime or convicted criminals, no connection to even our criminal justice and penal systems but what we see in news and movies, we’ve finally grown desensitized to all these elements.
We allow capital punishment to persist, more to the point, because we’ve long known the one salient fact, the fact that even while we ourselves, our kith and our kin are more likely to commit the lesser wrongs once punishable by public humiliation, physical maiming, mutilation and other enforced human suffering, we’re so assured such corporal punishments just can’t touch us that we seldom even give them any thought. It only follows that many of us rarely give clear thought to capital punishment either, perhaps never assess it from every angle at all, never give the method its due and these can hardly claim to judge it as right or wrong.
Summarily, we’ve long divorced ourselves from that still grave but less extreme physically invasive punishment, corporal punishment, our only practical link to the most extreme of them all, to cold, cruel, calculated and horrendous capital punishment. In consequence, we’ve just as long been plucked from the dark shadow of penalty. We’ve long stood remote from capital punishment, both physically and emotionally detached from this most barbaric of all invasive measures, cooly indifferent toward an activity which, calculated and arguably colder, more brutal, more inhuman than the pangs and mutilations of corporal punishment if clearly more invasive in its unique finality, nevertheless remains unlikely to involve us or even so much as graze our lives.
Most don’t care about capital punishment or the awful plight of its victims and this is not because they’re cruel but because for all intents and purposes they’re oblivious to matters of criminal justice. The more vigilant adamantly oppose the death penalty. Those equally cognizant but more prone to be cold, self-righteous, supercilious, snide and sanctimonious call regularly for the tack under the auspices, the veritable pretense of justice, safety, necessity and deterrence, though the crime of murder scarcely touches their own daily lives or those of the people even remotely acquainted with them and in the end this, the most extreme of punishments, has nothing to do with the mandates of justice, safety, necessity or deterrence but has all to do with menacing power, fear, contempt and revenge.
Harboring some perceived reason for killing criminals doesn’t make the killing any less cruel, barbaric or evil. Neither does it make those enabling it less hardened killers than the murderer himself, in particular since killing done as punishment more exacts revenge than establishes justice, rendering all perceived reasons for killing criminals purely beside the point.
In a case of murder, true justice lies only in the restoration of life to the victim of murder, which is impossible . True justice, then, is impossible in a murder case. At all odds, can any flawed human being or group of flawed human beings truly claim the right to intentionally exercise invasiveness, what plainly amounts to violence against another flawed human being, violence bringing injury or death, for any so-called reason, especially when those reasons are disingenuous, veil the truth and are purely beside the point anyway? Is not such a claim the utter pinnacle of arrogance, self-righteousness, sanctimony and cold-blooded revenge?
At least one implication of such a hypocritical claim is that all killing must be wrong or no killing is wrong. Killing for any reason, whether by lone or group effort, independently or in confluence, is always primitive in motive and deed, desensitizes people, makes acceptable, endorses, inspires and begets more killing, arrests our development not only as a culture but as a race because of who and what it makes us, what it does to us morally, spiritually, at our cores.
Honor for life is an unconditional state. We either honor life or we don’t. Killing is either right or wrong. We’re either for it or against it. What’s good or bad for one is good or bad for all. The book on killing is either open or closed. Otherwise we all remain fundamentally evil, hateful, vengeful and dishonorable, weak, without resolve, mere animals, slaves to our baser instincts, phonies and hypocrites forever who can always find an excuse to kill.
In any case, as corporal punishment doesn’t exist in modern America, those among us who might once have suffered its inhumanities have lost all connection with that darksome form of criminal penalization, so too, of course, with its grimmer relation, capital punishment.
Still practiced in primitive cultures, however, corporal punishment, physically invasive chastisements, criminal punishments placed in order of magnitude upward toward the most physically invasive criminal punishment of all, capital punishment, are now disdained in the free world, counted as depraved, barbaric, inhuman, morally objectionable, averse to genuine civilization, anathema to a true climate of culture, empathy, tolerance and of course abiding respect for human life and human dignity.
Long since banned, these atrocities are best consigned to the slag heap of blood-drenched history with its spate of brutal tyrants, its pernicious organizations like the Spanish inquisition, early America’s puritan clergy and certainly Nazi Germany’s Gestapo just to name a few. These rank indecencies are best consigned to the butcher block of body-strewn history with its diabolical trappings, rack and crucible, hot poker, burning stake and pillory not to mention all the rest in the unspeakable, broad-ranging gamut of despicable implements, all those brutally picking, plying, prodding tools for wreaking wrath and repression.
I shudder to think of them. What civilized people would reprise them? Today they’re unthinkable yet we continue to practice the more extreme tack of capital punishment which, despite its so-called humane application does kill nevertheless and, after all, kills more arrogantly, self-righteously, calculatingly, sanctimoniously, cold-bloodedly than most who commit murder. What does this make us? How is a people engaged in such punishment, such detached and heartless killing, such near-psychopathy, any better than the murderer himself?
When it’s the heartlessness and invasiveness of killing that’s most wrong and true justice only means the restoration of life to the slain, how can we possibly call the one a crime and the other a punishment. Clearly both acts engender heartlessness and invasiveness, both evoke intent, both violate the sanctity and dignity of human life without which designation there’d be little safety, little peace, little respect and little joy or even contentment, little healthy interaction between human beings in any presamably civilized culture.
Indeed, since most acts of murder are crimes of passion and so many others crimes of sickness, at base the murderer might lay claim to better character than his punishers, might be more human, more deserving of understanding, forgiveness and compassion, the unfeeling penal system, an insensate killing machine, might be the greater evil, the much greater menace to civilization in the long run, a barbaric and worn out entity that’s holding society back.
As an advanced society of civilized, free-thinking, caring, enlightened and self-effacing individuals who esteem human rights and human dignity, are we not big enough, not mature enough, compassionate enough, guilty enough in our own sins to give understanding, forgiveness and compassion where needed or are we, just like the system of criminal punishment we condone, mere cyborgs, cold, detached, negotiating with evil, untrustworthy, dangerous to ourselves and our compatriots, a detriment to the harmony, integrity and further advancement toward fully humane culture?
Doesn’t the cold, primitive savagery of a death penalty, just like all other callous, brutal, physically invasive criminal punishment long banned and prudently so, belong on gory history’s scrap pile of wanton behaviors along with cold, arrogant, self-righteous, judgmental attitudes, with hateful, vindictive and violent intrusiveness that maims, torments and denigrates?
The long-awaited, hard-earned, nothing less than quite final purging of all savage punishments and their machinery in the freer and more enlightened societies of the world, while necessary, much more civilized, even magnanimous, has nonetheless been instrumental in causing average citizens to lose connection with criminals and the criminal justice system and on some vague level with guilt itself. The disparity between legality and an agreed-upon morality has widened exponentially in recent times. In the modern world American law seldom punishes anything once generally deemed immoral behavior, and what it does punish, it punishes without physically invasive tactics. As a result, the public no longer shares the legal stage with convicted criminals, much less a sense of guilt with them. Average citizens don’t feel the kinship with convicted criminals, murderers in particular, that their predecessors did.
Surely, as we’ve long since agreed in the free world, physically invasive criminal punishment other than capital punishment, less physically invasive punishment that tends to graduate toward capital punishment, shouldn’t thrive here or anywhere else in the free world where genuine civilizations reign, where freedom, compassion and human rights are well established, where all physically invasive criminal punishments have been cast off as brutal and barbaric, as beneath an enlightened culture, all cast off, that is, but one.
Capital punishment is in fact the last vestige of physically invasive criminal punishment left in the free world. It’s the last remains, you might say, of ancient law, barbarian law, corrupting free societies today. Again, however, the lack in modern times of less physically invasive punishments that graduate toward capital punishment makes up one reason ordinary people have grown detached from crime, from criminals and the criminal justice system, grown detached from capital punishment itself, its extremism, licentiousness, cruelty, hypocracy and basic immorality, its inescapable likeness to the very crime it punishes, its inescapable likeness to murder.
The second reason a yawning gap exists at the heart of the US penal system between depriving convicted criminals of their freedom and depriving them of their lives is the exaggerated guilt average citizens attribute to criminals as a result of modern trends toward permissiveness and non-accountability, in effect, the public’s unrealistic, childlike, grossly overestimated sense of its own innocence, its subsequent and absolute dissociation from evil, from sin and sinners, from crime and criminals, assuredly from murder and murderers.
All this owes to the absence of rebuke, even self-abjuration from average citizens, due reproach for their own moral compromise, their own moral turpitude, their own common weakness and infractions against their neighbors, rebuke and self-abjuration which once upon a time provided them much closer connection to the criminal, even the murderer and a more poignant sense of the arrogance , extremism and cruelty of capital punishment.
This wholesale priggishness, this wide-scale ascendency has given way to a sanctimonious detachment of the public from the criminal justice system, crime and punishment itself, from criminals, their victims, their prosecutors, their jailers and their plight, their often lengthy struggle with imposition of capital punishment to begin with.
Capital punishment persists because of a sense of detachment. It persists because of a sense of broad detachment we average citizens feel not merely from the Criminal Justice System, crime and punishment itself, from criminals, their victims, their prosecutors and jailers but detachment from the exaggerated guilt we attribute to criminals as a result of modern trends toward permissiveness and non-accountability. It persists because of an unrealistic, childlike, grossly overestimated sense of our own innocence.
Capital punishment persists because of a sanctimonious detachment from crime and criminals. This holier-than-thou detachment stems in part from an absence in our own lives of precisely those single, true, physically invasive criminal punishments graduating slowly toward capital punishment, extreme measures we can do without, long since happily abolished as brutal and barbaric but responsible when in practice for giving average citizens a sense of their own weakness, immorality and wrongdoing and thus a closer connection to those who commit murder not to mention a more poignant sense of the terrible arrogance, extremism and cruelty of capital punishment. In part, even without those erstwhile physically invasive criminal punishments graduating slowly toward capital punishment, a sanctimonious detachment from crime and criminals exists because of an absence today of the slightest rebuke, even self-abjuration, due reproach for our own moral compromise or downright turpitude, our own regular weaknesses and wrongdoings which when in practice once upon a time gave us a similarly closer connection to the murderer and a more poignant sense of the arrogance, extremism and cruelty of capital punishment.
We lack not only the erstwhile pangs of conscience, admonishment, remorse and shame but also the character and empathy which arise from them. It’s finally become a matter of us and them with a wide space between devoid of much-needed insight, humility, understanding and empathy, all precious seeds of our own fading sense of frailty and guilt. Nowadays they are too evil for us and we are too good for them.
–♦©M. D. Phillips–awincingglare.com