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May 28, 2015

Death Penalty and Integrity

Patricia A. Kelly

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death on May 15 for his part in the Boston Marathon bombing two years ago. The sentence was imposed under federal guidelines, as Massachusetts forbids this punishment.

Right now in the United States, it’s 32/18, with 32 states, including Maryland, no longer allowing the death penalty.

The rest of the states and the federal government find themselves very lonely among industrialized, democratic nations, as the U.S. and Japan are the only two such countries who allow it. Those “aligned” with us in allowing it include most Middle Eastern countries and North Korea, not the best company, in my view.

The most reasonable justification I hear for the death penalty is the horrendous nature of the crime. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s crime certainly fits into that category.

What he did, however, should not influence the decision of a civilized society regarding his punishment. Should a government kill someone for killing someone? The answer is no. The terrible nature of the crime should not impact the behavior of the government.

Civilized people should not kill others unless they absolutely must, as in war, self-defense, or when someone serving a life sentence remains a danger to society.

There are many reasons to discontinue the death penalty. It costs more to execute someone, with all the appeals, than it does to keep them in prison for life. Again because of appeals, families of victims are forced to suffer through trials and media attention, often for decades, before the execution.

A significant number of death row residents have been found, through DNA evidence, to be innocent. It’s not possible for ordinary humans to bring someone back from the dead. We can, however, release someone from prison.

These reasons pale in comparison to valuing human life, whether it be a murderer, or a kidnapped child.

Our values, and our ability to uphold them, are often challenged in life. How much do you feel the value of the life of someone who kills your child, or tortures your dog to death is worth? Of course, your first thought would be to kill them; or, at least, cause them pain equal to what they caused you.

Letting them affect your behavior, though, allows them to triumph. Maintaining your values and your position in the world is rightly called having integrity. If we lived in a society where everyone had integrity, the world would be a different place.

Professionals in our society, such as police, emergency nurses and physicians, as well as rescue personnel, often face this challenge. Just try maintaining your professionalism while an AIDS patient purposely spits in your face. Having been there, I so appreciate those who protect our society because many of them face this, or some variation of it – and daily. You would not believe the restraint I have witnessed among police, for example.

As for Tsarnaev, if we don’t kill him, he will disappear into a very high security prison, allowing his victims to move on, and for his notoriety to fade into the obscurity he deserves.

The other, most interesting impact, would be in the world. It would define us, the United States of America, as people who do not kill unless we must. ISIL, and other terrorist groups, would have to see the difference. They, and other more primitive societies than ours, might call us weak, but would have to question the value we express by repudiating death unless absolutely necessary.

This must also bring to mind the question of whether abortion should be allowed in our society, but that’s too long and complicated for this column. Suffice it to say that we are in a very weird conundrum when we can choose, with a 20 week old fetus, to abort it, or to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars keeping it alive and growing, if it’s accidentally born prematurely. And what about the case of a pregnant mother carrying a viable fetus who is shot, and her baby killed? In some states, it’s not two murders because abortion is legal.

Thank goodness, the death penalty question is simpler. Let God decide whether “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is appropriate. Let us stand against officially sanctioning killing people for killing people. Let’s send that message to the world – that we are civilized, and that we have integrity as a society.


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