By Peter Singer, Project Syndicate, from CNN/GPS website, October 12, 2011 Editor's Note: Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Ethics of What We Eat, and The Life You Can Save. For more from Singer, visit Project Syndicate's website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.
Three significant events relating to the death penalty occurred in the United States during September. The one that gained the most publicity was the execution in Georgia of Troy Davis, who had been convicted of the 1989 murder of Mark McPhail, an off-duty police officer.
Davis’s death sentence was carried out despite serious doubts about whether he was guilty of the crime for which he received it. Witnesses who had testified at his trial later said that prosecutors had coerced them. Even death-penalty supporters protested against his execution, saying that he should be given a new trial. But the courts denied his appeals. In his final words, he proclaimed his innocence.
The deliberate judicial killing of a man who might have been innocent is deeply disturbing. But the execution was consistent with something that happened just two weeks earlier, at one of the debates between Republican candidates for their party’s nomination to challenge President Barack Obama next year. Texas Governor Rick Perry was reminded that during his term of office, the death penalty has been carried out 234 times. No other governor in modern times has presided over as many executions. But what is more remarkable is that some audience members applauded when the high number of executions was mentioned.
Perry was then asked whether he was ever troubled by the fact that one of them might have been innocent. He replied that he did not lose any sleep over the executions, because he had confidence in the judicial system in Texas. In view of the record of mistakes in every other judicial system, such confidence is difficult to justify. Indeed, less than a month later, Michael Morton, who had served nearly 25 years of a life sentence for the murder of his wife, was released from a Texas prison. DNA tests had shown that another man was responsible for the crime.
As September drew to a close, the US Supreme Court reached its decision in the case of Manuel Valle, who had been sentenced to death 33 years earlier. Valle had asked the court to halt his execution, on the grounds that to spend so long on death row is “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore prohibited by the US constitution.
Justice Stephen Breyer agreed that to spend 33 years in prison awaiting execution is cruel. In support of that view, he pointed to “barbaric” conditions on death row, and the “horrible” feelings of uncertainty when one is under sentence of execution but does not know whether or when the sentence will be carried out. Breyer then went on to document the fact that so long a period on death row is also unusual. It was, in fact, a record, although the average length of time spent on death row in the US is 15 years; in 2009, of 3173 death-row prisoners, 113 had been there for more than 29 years.
So Breyer held that Valle’s treatment was unconstitutional, and that he should not be executed. But he found no support for his position among the eight other Supreme Court judges. On September 28, the court rejected Valle’s application, and he was executed that evening.
The US is now the only Western industrialized nation to retain the death penalty for murder. Of 50 European countries, only Belarus, notorious for its lack of respect for basic human rights, still executes criminals in peacetime. The European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights regards the death penalty as a human-rights violation.
The death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Murder rates in Europe and other Western industrialized nations are lower, often much lower, than those in the US. In the US itself, the 16 states that have abolished the death penalty generally have lower murder rates than those that retain it.
In the US, however, deterrence is not really the issue. Retribution is often seen as a more important justification for the death penalty. It is quite common for family members of the victim to watch the execution of the person convicted of killing their relative, and afterwards to pronounce themselves satisfied that justice has been done – it happened again with the execution of Troy Davis.
In the rest of the Western world, the desire to witness an execution is widely regarded as barbaric, and barely comprehensible. The idea that the families of murder victims cannot obtain “closure” until the murderer has been executed seems not to be a universal human truth, but a product of a particular culture – perhaps not even American culture as a whole, but rather the culture of the American South, where 80% of all executions take place.
In view of the possibility that Georgia recently executed an innocent man, it is particularly ironic that the South’s voters are America’s most zealous in their efforts to protect innocent human life – as long as that life is still inside the womb, or is that of a person who, suffering from a terminal illness, seeks a doctor’s assistance in order to die when he or she wants. It is a contradiction that belies what the Republican Party, which dominates the region, promotes as a “culture of life.”
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Peter Singer. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
One view from outside the U.S. considers an even more striking irony. It is the U.S. that champions the Christian church; especially strong are the hoards of "christians" who consider themselves 'born-again' and committed to the "right to life" while ironically, championing the Second Amendment Right to bear arms, to kill in self-defence and to kill medical personnel engaged in the process of therapeutic abortions.
While no one is expected to hold completely consistent views, especially with respect to such loaded, hot-button issues as life and death, there is a quality, not only of retribution, but actually of revenge, that is embedded, with impunity, into the American view of life. While the country is known for championing "second chances" in some cases, the history of vindictive acts by the federal government, by states legislatures, and by individuals is long, bloody and frightening.
Revenge stalks city streets at nights, looking for those living on the underbelly of the society to commit crimes. Revenge stalks the mountains of Afghanistan, and the towns and villages of Iraq, following the 9/11 attacks, to fulfil what George W. Bush declared from the rubble of the twin towers of the Trade Center with his megaphone: "I hear you and the rest of the world will hear all of us very soon!"
And, for a country attempting to practice the Christian faith with churches literally dotting the landscape, there must be a memory lapse:
Recall some of these passages:(from Devotional Christian website) (ESV: English Standard Version of the Bible)
Jesus Is Our Model Of Forgiveness
Luke 23:33-34 ESV And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. (34) And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.
Jesus Commanded Forgiveness
Mark 11:25 ESV And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Matthew 6:14-15 ESV For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, (15) but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Luke 17:3-4 ESV Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, (4) and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Matthew 18:21-22 ESV Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (22) Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
Luke 6:36-37 ESV Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (37) “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven;
Matthew 5:44 ESV But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Because God Has Forgiven Us, We Must Forgive Others
Ephesians 4:32 ESV Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Colossians 3:13 ESV bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
More Bible Verses About Forgiveness
Proverbs 19:11 ESV Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.
Romans 12:20 ESV To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Matthew 18:32-35 ESV Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. (33) And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (34) And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (35) So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Stephen Was An Example Of Forgiveness
Acts 7:59-60 ESV And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (60) And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Paul Was An Example Of Forgiveness
2 Timothy 4:16 ESV At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!
Joseph Was An Example Of Forgiveness
Genesis 50:20-21 ESV As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (21) So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
James 5:15 ESV And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Colossians 2:13-14 ESV And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, (14) by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
2 Corinthians 2:10-11 ESV Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, (11) so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
Romans 4:7-8 ESV “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; (8) blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
John 20:22-23 ESV And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (23) If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
1 John 2:12 ESV I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.
Psalms 32:1-2 ESV A Maskil of David. Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. (2) Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
Isaiah 33:24 ESV And no inhabitant will say, “I am sick”; the people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity.
If any theme within the Christian faith is worthy of emulation, it would seem that "forgiveness" would qualify as one for disciples to practice, even before they preach it. How to square the circle of one's faith with the overt even championed policy and practice of capital punishment, demonstrated over and over not to be a deterrent, not to reduce crime, not to provide "justice" in spite of the spoken words of victims' families, barbarically uttered at executions by the state, is a difficult conundrum for ordinary Americans.
Justifying the dominant policy of most (38) states) to the rest of the world is even more troubling, if not completely impossible.
Irony, revenge, retibution, state murder, even when potential innocence may be crossed...these are not the attributes of a healthy body politic, nor of a healthy religious practice. I wonder if and when the lights will come on, in those thirty-eight legislatures across the U.S.
(I invite your comments, via e-mail, to firstname.lastname@example.org )