The question of capital punishment has re-emerged following the death sentence passed down to the reprehensible Dylann Roof on 10 January 2017. Roof, 22, had been convicted of the appalling murder of nine African-Americans in a downtown Charleston, South Carolina church on 17 June 2015.
Roof, it seems clear to me, is a hopeless, lost cause, much in the same way as Anders Breivik, who displayed a similar, icy lack of remorse for his crimes. But as hopeless, pathetic, repressed, undeveloped and unfeeling as Roof is, and will likely always remain, to execute a person on the state’s authority is deeply troubling. But this article is not about Dylann Roof, as should become clear.
Death, in some cases, is justified. A death resulting from a legitimate act of self-defence, or the adoption of euthanasia by an informed mind who no longer wishes to suffer are two such examples. But the state, when no longer threatened by the incarcerated individual, has no moral justification to pull the lever or press the button to end a life.
Why do people still wish to see other humans put to death? Is it a religious holdover, which is why it is so prevalent in the more religious countries, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, than more secular ones, including Norway, home to Brevik, who is serving a life-term? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is typical of biblical vengeance. The prevalence of Sharia Law is undoubtedly the cause of the abhorrent public beheadings in Mecca. For this writer, however, whilst decapitation is more obscene than a lethal injection, it is just that: more obscene. For humans to kill other humans as punishment is an angry display of snarling teeth and misplaced virtue. We feel we are cleansing the planet, but we are simply perpetuating the violence. We are harming our argument that murder is unquestionably wrong. Murder is wrong if I do it in my spare time, or if the state pays me to do it on their time. The legality does not make it right, it simply makes it legal.
If you are reading this article in 3017, I am quite sure you will be baffled at the continuing practice of state execution in this writer’s era. You will doubtless scratch your head at other aspects of our behaviour, too. “I cannot believe you continued to eat animals despite their suffering”, “I cannot believe you continued to burn fossil fuels and that some of you denied climate change”, and “I really cannot believe you elected the celebrity hotel-guy as President.” This is how we, in 2017, look back at the witch trials and in not sailing too far towards the horizon for fear of falling off the other side of the world. Eventually, capital punishment will end, because human development, as slow as it seems to us in our short life-terms, is generally progressive. The rise of religion, especially fundamentalism, and fascism, is very concerning, but for the most part, humans do become better, more enlightened humans in the long passage of time.
Be honest with yourself. You know state executions are wrong. I will be honest with you. If a member of my family were murdered, I would want death for the perpetrator. There is no question about that. Maybe, in a fit of rage, I would seek to enact this personally. But the state should operate on moral principles that set the tone for the society we want for our children. If life is about anything, is it not about making society more progressive and enlightened for our descendants? Keeping a man, or a woman, locked-up for years on end is a huge burden on the state, but morality is priceless. Dylann Roof, in some abstract sense, deserves to die. But the state has no moral authority to execute him. Nobody ever said that morality is inexpensive. Much of what a state does in the public good, such as education, pensions, health care and social security, is expensive. Not killing people is also expensive. But I am quite sure that our reader from 3017 will quite understand, and will wonder why we took so long to form the same opinion.