March 28, 2005

Schiavo, Abortion, and the Death Penalty

A lot of people are drawing comparisons and insinuations of hypocrisy for those who support Terri Schiavo and oppose abortion: namely, they have to oppose using the death penalty against potentially innocent people.

Personally, I'm never very interested in getting into a death penalty argument. I'm of the opinion that taking the life of a murder, rapist or child molester is in fact a human right, borne of all human beings - even other criminals. Whether you're the victim, related to the victim, or have never met the victim, it's justified (morally, at least) to kill one of these despicable criminals. Of course, this is not an accepted legal remedy, and it removes the ability of oversight and protections in case the individual is innocent - and naturally it's often difficult to know just who's guilty. So there are practical obstacles, but in the abstracted moral sense, it's a natural right to execute the worst offenders against rights.

    That, he who has suffered the damage has a right to demand in his own name, and he alone can remit: the damnified person has this power of appropriating to himself the goods or service of the offender, by right of self-preservation, as every man has a power to punish the crime, to prevent its being committed again, by the right he has of preserving all mankind, and doing all reasonable things he can in order to that end: and thus it is, that every man, in the state of nature, has a power to kill a murderer, both to deter others from doing the like injury, which no reparation can compensate, by the example of the punishment that attends it from every body, and also to secure men from the attempts of a criminal, who having renounced reason, the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind, hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tyger, one of those wild savage beasts, with whom men can have no society nor security: and upon this is grounded that great law of nature, Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed. (emphases his) - Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, s.11
That's basically my opinion. But I don't find much motivation to argue the death penalty outside the abstract realm, because it's full of people who have opinions ten times stronger than they have information. It mostly devolves into an indictment of the justice system itself.

But what I find silly is this idea that if only we stopped the death penalty, then we'd stop potentially killing innocent people. Umm. Was I the only one paying attention in history class? Current events?

When the allies bombed Japan, many thousands of innocent people died. When the British bombed Dresden, many thousands of innocent died. When soldiers accidentally run over people or bomb people, innocents can die. When police accidentally shoot people that appear to be armed, innocents can die. When someones drives a car almost anywhere, innocents can die both inside and outside the car.

If anything, the death penalty - with all its oversights and protections, and despite its flaws - is probably one of the safest places for innocent people to find themselves. Certainly I'd rather have a half-dozen courts reviewing my case and the protections of prosecutorial discretion, legal representation, and the 5th and 6th Amendment on my side than accidentally trip off the sidewalk and get run over by a dump truck. What's my protection there, anti-lock brakes?

Unless we're going to eliminate the army, police departments and other dangerous occupations and devices - like say, nearly every car in America - we're going to run the risk of people dying. The standard is not whether innocent people might be killed, but whether we're respecting the rights of innocent people to life and liberty.

So stow your moral righteousness until you're a pacifistic bicyclist. Of course, then you'll probably be bombed, shot or run over and we won't have to hear it.

UPDATE: Orson Scott Card has a much more thoughtful and better-written piece on Schiavo and the death penalty at RealClearPolitics here. Excerpt:

    Yet because life is so precious, decent people are loath to use the death penalty, because it’s possible for the prosecutors to be wrong. Better to keep a thousand perpetrators of evil alive than to suffer one to be executed innocently.

    But those who have harmed no one, whose only offense is to remain alive while being helpless, we can kill them.


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