Ottawa Jun 13, 2001
I have a long-standing intellectual interest in the subject of capital punishment and would like to comment on your June 12, 2001 column (Opposed: It weakens our collective safety) in the National Post.
First, let me make a personal observation on the heading chosen for your short essay. When I arrived in Canada thirty some years ago, I learned about the mystical belief of the locals in their gendarmes which struck me strange because where I came from the cops had generally bad reputation. The local lore which said that 'the Mounties always get their man' implied a sense of security about the country's law enforcement such that I had not known. The Mounties had exemplified professional state force, tough, implacable and yet disciplined and fair. 'Getting their man' did not imply that he was going to be hacked to pieces or even mistreated once they had him in custody. Their job was to deliver their man to the justice system. The people who were telling me about with pride about the Mounties were sighing, or flushed with anger when talking about the Liberal government which suspended executing the country's most depraved criminals. It seemed to me then as it seems to me now that for the common man or woman on the street having the death penalty on the books (and used, from time to time), confers a distinct sense of security. So, difficult as it may be for the pony-tailed lawyer or the psychiatrist with a facial tick to understand, the simple-minded folks understand justice as 'what comes around'. The most sobering comment about our collective psyche is that 78% of Americans supported the state euthanazing Timothy McVeigh.
To answer your 'important' question about the surgical needles which were used to kill Mr McVeigh: yes, you are probably right, they were sterilized. If that seems absurd to you, perhaps you should allow that the sterilization in this case was for the benefit of the staff administering the euthanasia. Strange that you would not think of that.
I have a problem with the train of your reasoning here. I am in favour of capital punishment but I belong to those who advocate a restricted use of it in exemplary cases of wanton destruction of life. I believe that the form of execution that MrVeigh underwent is the correct one, and that while the state has the obligation to execute death warrants for crimes such as his it also has the duty to do so in a most humane way at its disposal. I don't understand your complaint.
If it must, the state should dispatch the prisoner by inflicting minimum of physical suffering on him or her. This principle hes been scrupulously observed since the dawn of civil society. Inspired by the Enlightement philosophes, Catherine the Great prohibited the scourging of captured Emmelian Pugachev, her great rival and an exceptionally brutal mass murderer and terrorist. The chivalry codes, both Occidental and Oriental, expressly denied the knight 'the pleasure in killing'. It was an act of necessity, which should be executed without anger or glee. The code of honour also forbade the killing of fools. From this moral dictum the 'insanity plea' has arisen. Interestingly, it was first sucessfuly argued in England in a case of attempted regicide.
G.B.Shaw's view that capital punishment equals the murder it sanctions is obviously flawed both logically and morally. I have already observed that killing humans does not imply derogation of them as human beings. Indeed the law, in its painful slowness, is coming to realize that unauthorized euthanasia cannot be equated with murder, since murder implies hostility towards the victim and euthanasia does not. Whatever Dr Kworkian is, he is not a murderer. All cultures around the world recognized in the past the need for the state to kill dispassionately in order to prevent acts of spontaneous revenge which almost always carry a risk of escalating violence. On the moral side, I simply do not understand a posture which equates the act of lethal aggression with a desire for the destruction of the one who has inflicted it. The aggressor's act is that of volition, motivated specifically by malevolence, or reckless disregard for life. It is that act which has been "tabooed" by all moral codes. The Old Testament makes it clear that "Thou shalt not kill' means "woe to the aggressor !" (e.g.Exodus 21:12). In contrast, the state's lawful killing in response is a defensive measure, one uniquely concerned with discharging justice as a means of restoring peace in the community. An ancient legal principle states that the killing of a tyrant is not a crime. That would give the friends or kin of a slain victim the legal grounds to kill the perpetrator but these must be routinely ceded to the state, if a society is to remain civilized. The state then has an obligation to act on the complaint, i.e. to examine the act in order to determine if the offence was capital. If it decides beforehand that no matter what happened, a capital crime was not committed, then it is not a just state. As long as people kill each other, the state has a duty to consider a capital punishment an option. It should be used correctly, that is to say with restraint, but must be used for the system to retain credibility as an even-handed, competent arbiter.
In one of the most moving essays on capital punishment George Orwell observed a condemned prisoner nimbly side-stepping a puddle on his way to the gallows. The idea of killing a healthy human being, of course, can be maddening. I do not accept the argument which says that because capital punishment is non-reversible, it is unjust. We drive cars and fly planes knowing full well that we are taking risks with our lives. Yet the anguish of the condemned man needs to be grasped and contemplated, and the risks of inflicting such agonies on innocent people properly weighed. Such exercise will reduce the margin by which Justice prevails over Pity.
There is of course another, much more powerful element, that assures me that the pro-capital stance is moral and necessary. Strangely, important as the 'self-inclusive morality' in the debate is, it does not get discussed much. In saying that I believe in death penalty I am saying that if - God forbid - I ever was to kill unlawfully, then I know I could forfeit my own life. So, what I am saying is that I know that the life of another human is as precious as my own. In my stated belief in capital punishment then there is a pledge to respect human life and the collateral here is my own license to breathe. Now I often wonder how the abolitionist moralists fly past this one ! Help me out, will you ? Are you saying that you could never murder yourself, that there is no such possibility ? Or are you simply saying: 'you could not possibly do unto me as I would do unto others' ? Now, I would admit I am terribly mistaken if you can show me that this is not the ethical crux of the matter !