Is it possible to oppose capital punishment and not be a pacifist, when it comes to war? Can you support the soldier, but not the war? If you're against killing a human being, how can you be against capital punishment and support war?
Although it may seem contradictory, you can justify support of war and, at the same time, justify an anti-capital punishment position. Opposition to capital punishment doesn't mean you stand as a pacifist during wartime. If you think about it, war and capital punishment are apples and oranges.
War is an exception to the traditional Judeo-Christian moral imperative against killing another person. War is cast as killing in defence of self, others and nation. Wartime killing is altruistic, whereas murder is selfish.
This is where the argument must be located. Capital punishment is hardly self-defence. You might argue citizens must protect themselves, and execution is protection. Against whom are we protecting ourselves? Escapes from death row are rare. Murderers seldom recommit. Serial killers may repeat, and are the exception. It's difficult to get away with murder, maybe once, but seldom twice. The point is most often murderers are securely confined, a threat to themselves and others like them, but not the citizenry. What protection does the state provide by stooping to the level of a murderer?
Moral qualms about the idea of state-sponsored murder, that is, capital punishment, stem from several fronts. First, execution is irreversible and, because potential evidence that could clear the prisoner in the future, of concern. Almost every day, we learn of another person executed for a murder DNA confirms he could not have committed. The irreversibility of state-sanctioned murder is a heavy burden.
Second, can we justify taking a life when a prisoner is easily be jailed for life, without parole. What a miserable, unhappy existence it is likely to be, existence without life.
There's the cost, too. The price of a 60-year life without parole sentence is about $3 million 2006 dollars. An execution, on the other hand, costs the state about $7 million dollars. With a sentence of death comes years of appeals and legal maneuverings. The taxpayer usually pays all the legal bills, plus room and board. The math is easy: $50,000 a year for life or a million dollars a year for seven years.
Then there's the overwhelming evidence capital punishment doesn't realize its ultimate aim of deterrence. Do you think an addict, desperate for a fix, weighs the potential results of his or her act? Other than murder-for-hire, few murderers ponder implications. The act's most often impulsive, spurred by addiction, momentary anger or reflex.
To return to the opposition to war, we can take wartime experiences to use an example comparing the difference between the two types of killing. As a matter of definition, battlefield murder isn't murder any more than a volunteer army is comprised of women and men who want to commit suicide. The most ardent pacifists would agree.
Battlefield murder is killing enemy soldiers as they're trying to surrender or murdering the family of a young girl, just raped by soldiers, and claiming they were collateral damage in a firefight. The difference is in the context: social or personal. The soldier who kills the enemy does so for the good of all; the soldier who kills to cover a crime acts selfishly.
Can you oppose capital punishment and support war? The answer is yes. Invaders will take all you have, including your life and the lives all around you, so you must act to protect. The law allows us to know of murderers only after the fact, when, typically, pose no further threat, if only by confinement. To go the further step and take their life is only to encourage vengeance, which, in the end, fails.
Tim Sexton is a writer, living in Florida, at last report.
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