Saturday, June 13, 2015
The Old "Eye for an Eye"
The death penalty has been under intense discussion lately in the good old US of A. We are talking about its effectiveness in deterring the most heinous crimes, how to do it effectively and humanely, and the expense, both financial and human. I have read articles in Time magazine (June 8, 2015 issue) and in The Atlantic (July 2015 issue). Then it hit me: I read about the death penalty, and I listen to others talking about it, but what do I think about it? Am I in favor of the death penalty or against it?
There's something quite satisfying about the old Abrahamic "An eye for an eye" system of justice. It brings the world back into balance after someone disrupts it with violence. So, if someone murders another person or persons, it makes a certain sense if the murderer is then put to death as punishment. But doesn't that make the executioner(s) murderers? If the murderer has no right to take a human life, what makes it OK for the executioner(s) to take a life? Simply because they are punishing the murderer? Because a law makes it OK? Doesn't this punishment only perpetuate the violence?
The questions surrounding the death penalty challenge Americans' value system. Despite the separation of church and state guaranteed in our Constitution, our traditions are Christian which shares Abrahamic foundations with Judaism and Islam. Under American law, human life is sacred. It is against the law to kill another human being. This is consistent with the Ten Commandments found in The Bible. You would think that having a death penalty punishment for killing another human being would be an effective deterrent to murder, or any other heinous crime, but it's really not. It's taken America a long time to realize this. The law, or a Commandment, will only work for some of the people to deter violent behavior. For the rest, it's like they don't think the law applies to them or they just don't care.
I've never been comfortable with the death penalty. Or violence, for that matter. I know what it's like to have been a victim of violence. I live in a state that doesn't have the death penalty. I question whether incarceration is an effective punishment when prisoners have television, computers, internet access, and other "amenities" in prison. I question whether a punishment is really an effective way to stop violence. Especially if violence is a part of our nature, i.e. we are predators that hunt, that kill other animals for food, and use violent means to secure territory and defend ourselves.
There is more than one kind of violence. We are the most familiar with physical violence, of course. But there's also psychological violence that causes psychological trauma and damage; emotional violence that also causes trauma and damage; and the most difficult to define, spiritual violence or violence against the soul.
I've thought for many years now that violence is more likely to be used by people who feel powerless, i.e. at some point, someone robbed them of their personal, internal power, usually through violence or abuse or control, and they seek to replace it with external power, or power over other people. We admire powerful people, but it's external power, buttressed by wealth, position, ownership, influence, and often violence, not internal power. Someone who has his personal, internal power feels no need for power over others. He is secure in himself, in who he is, his place in the world, and his self worth. We have all sorts of ways to learn how to acquire external power, but what about internal power? What would learning about and developing internal, personal power look like?
Does humanity really hold human life sacred? How we treat each other, whether across the globe or next door to our homes, reveals the depth of our self-loathing. It is the purposeful ignoring of this deep-seated self-loathing that allows people to do violence to each other -- to assault, rape, kill and traumatize. In America, we could ban the death penalty, but that would not stop the violence. I think what we really need in this country and on this planet is the desire and will to truly know ourselves, our humanity, and our worth, to accept ourselves as we truly are, and to shift the power from external to internal. Are we too stuck in the past, mired in outmoded beliefs like learning to love oneself is self-centered and selfish? Maybe the first step is to learn that it's OK to learn who we truly are, not what we want or what kind of power we have.
I am against the death penalty, whether it is state-sanctioned or executed by a criminal who feels powerless and steals another person's power and life by killing him. "An eye for an eye" only perpetuates the desire to feel powerful and acquire external power over others, and perpetuates the violence. Instead of imagining and creating new ways to execute the death penalty humanely, maybe we would do better to imagine and create ways to push ourselves to learn about true power and who humans really are....