By Thomas F. Bertonneau
The delayed execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh has ignited the usual debate about the death penalty. To understand how killing a convicted murderer justly honors the sanctity of life and demonstrates compassion for the victims, consider the moral argument of one of the most refined of English writers.
We know the poet William Wordsworth as an advocate on behalf of outcasts and the unjustly accused, as a gentle ally of those lonely, unpropertied souls whom he often celebrated in his verses.
In his autobiographical Prelude, Wordsworth records a crucial moment in his moral development. Clambering on horseback into a valley of the Cumberland Hills, he “came to a bottom, where in former times / A murderer had been hung in iron chains.” The gibbet itself and all trace of the corpse have long since “moldered down,” the poet says, “but on the turf,/ Hard by … Some unknown hand had carved the murderer’s name.” A short time later, wrapped in a “visionary dreariness,” the poet sees a young girl who “seemed with difficult steps to force her way Against the blowing wind.” No communication occurs, and the girl swiftly vanishes from sight, but it is a moment of revelation.
Part of the ethical asymmetry of murder — Wordsworth urges — is that victims often go nameless, walking as ghosts against the wind, while the killer becomes the object of a misplaced interest unduly perpetuating his name. We remember Richard Ramirez, California’s “Hillside Strangler.” The names of his victims slip our memory — if we ever knew them.
Well-publicized encounters with the executioner, on the other hand, bring out choruses to invoke mercy for the condemned, a sentiment that the killer, for his part, did not exhibit. The capital sentence, so the bargainers for compassion tell us, denies the value of human life.
But what then of murder itself? Many paradoxes bedevil the understanding of murder and of civilization’s response to it, the death penalty. Emotions and cliches obscure the nature of the sanction and derail the discussion of it.
Our own scientific approach to evidence and our sense of punctiliousness in criminal procedure were not always the case. Before the hangman, so to speak, there were only the Hatfields and the McCoys. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek tragedian Aeschylus traced the founding of his own Athenian democracy to the moment when the constituent assembly took over the job of judging blood crimes and in so doing put an end to feud. Feud, whose goal is lynching, was the original, spontaneous response to manslaughter or rape.
But feud escalates. Kill my brother and I satisfy vengeance by killing you. You also have brothers, who kill me in turn, and so it goes, in a dizzy spiral. This inflaming bloodlust, Aeschylus argues, continues until society is torn apart. When impartial judges mete out the law, they assuage free-floating wrath against the homicide and pacify the aggrieved parties. “An eye for an eye” thus improves vastly on “your many for my one.”
The desire for retribution nevertheless remains. We see it in the repugnance inspired by O.J. Simpson, who got away with murder. Simpson infuriates us because, as adherents of civilization, we put an absolute value on the lives of his victims, where he put none. A murderer extinguishes one life and havocs many others.
The justice that the death penalty seeks, it seeks foremostly for the deceased, who can no longer demand it for himself. In another way, the death penalty is society’s belated application of self-defense in place of the victim. “We should like to have been there,” the sentence says, “to have met lethal force with lethal force for the victim’s sake.”
The death penalty thus honors and commemorates the dead and speaks to the sanctity of life in the civilized order.
Has the penal system executed innocent men? Certainly. Human institutions reflect human flaws. We should do what we can short of abolishing the death penalty to ensure that convictions are valid.
Yet, given the character of our procedures, it is equally likely, if not much more so, that guilty parties have gone free, only to murder again. The argument of imperfect justice ignores the toll on innocent life that stems, ironically, from our conscience-troubled scrupulousness.
The fire and shrapnel of Timothy McVeigh’s bomb killed more than 160 people, none of whom had ever lifted a finger against him. It was “revenge,” he has intimated, for the FBI assault on the Branch Davidians at Waco. “Revenge” is the opposite of justice — the opposite, in fact, of civilization. In the strange reticence of the usually vocal anti-death penalty spokesmen to plead for McVeigh, we see a lingering vestige of that respect for victims, understood by Aeschylus and Wordsworth, without which morality cannot exist. When that vestige dies, the value of life dies with it.