Friday, April 21, 2017

A culture of life

Recently my home state, Arkansas, has been in the news for trying to kill people on a deadline.

(The place where I hang my hat these days, Texas, is no slouch when it comes to killing people, but the squeaky wheel is getting greased at the moment.)

Arkansas's law-and-order governor signed eight death warrants recently, ordering death row inmates to be killed across a ten-day period between April 17 and April 27.  What created the urgency--until last night, the state hadn't executed anyone in 12 years--is that the state's supply of one of the drugs used to carry out the executions by lethal injection is set to expire at the end of April.  

Like many states, Arkansas uses three drugs to carry out executions:  midazolam (which anesthetizes the prisoner), vecuronium bromide (which paralyzes the prisoner's lungs), and potassium chloride (which stops the heart).  The impending expiration of the state's supply of midazolam is what's driving the push to put these men to death, but it should be noted that there are problems with the other drugs as well.

You might be wondering, "Hey, if the midazolam is going to expire, just throw it out and buy some more, right?"  The problem with that is that the makers of midazolam all refuse to sell it for use in executions anymore.  Likewise for vecuronium bromide--and McKesson, the maker of the supply of that drug that Arkansas possesses, has sued the state for deceiving it in order to purchase the drug for executions.  (Potassium chloride is easily synthesized and cheaply available from many sources, so it is not difficult to obtain.)

The whole process has been fraught with difficulties.  The state supreme court has stayed a couple of the executions, and a federal district judge issued a stay of the remaining six, only to have that stay dissolved by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  For Ledell Lee, the appeals ran out yesterday, and he was executed shortly before midnight.

When it comes to the death penalty, I'm mostly a pragmatist:

  • The death penalty is expensive to administer because the due process of law requires multiple levels of review.  We can't streamline that process because that's one of the things that keeps us from executing innocent people (mostly).  Considering that 158 death-row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, due process is not a luxury we can afford to dispense with.  For the cost of a single death penalty case, we could keep the prisoner locked up for 120 years--longer than the verified lifespan of every human being whoever lived except one (Jeanne Calment died at 122).  
  • The death penalty is rarely administered (as opposed to imposing a long prison sentence), and its frequency has gone down steadily since the high-water mark of 98 executions in 1999 (there were only 20 in 2016).  Meanwhile, the murder and violent crime rate has gone down significantly over that time.*
* - Why?  My money is on the removal of lead from our environment in the 1970s.  Most everyone is aware that children are often rendered slow by exposure to lead from eating old paint chips or drinking tap water in Republican-controlled areas like Flint, Michigan, but long-term low-level lead exposure has less obvious but still significant effects and appears to be a significant driver of antisocial behaviors like violent crime.
  • The penalty is also racially discriminatory in its application.  76% of defendants in death penalty cases are white, but only 56% of people executed are white.  A black person is roughly twice as likely to be executed than a similarly situated white person.  And even though only about 50% of murder victims are white, about 75% of the victims in cases where there is an execution are white.
  • It's also not a deterrent.  States that have the death penalty have murder rates that are significantly higher than states that lack it.  Southern states are responsible for 80% of the executions in the modern era and have the highest regional murder rate (6.7 per 100,000, versus 5.6 per 100,000 nationally and only 4.2 per 100,000 in the Northeast).  In the Northeast, only New Hampshire (0 executions) and Pennsylvania (3 executions) have the death penalty; Maryland (5 executions) used to have it but abolished it, while New York had it briefly but never executed anyone before it was declared unconstitutional under the state constitution. 
There are lots of reasons to oppose capital punishment, and I don't see any good reasons to support it. But on social media over the last few days, I've seen a couple of people make arguments in its favor. What they boil down to, mostly, is a belief in "an eye for an eye," a concept that is traceable to the Code of Hammurabi (though, interestingly, not to the older Code of Ur-Nammu, which specified pecuniary penalties for most crimes). Its presence in the Hebrew Talmud is almost certainly more significant to its currency today. More on that in a moment.

The other argument in favor of capital punishment is more nuanced but of a color with lex talionis, the law of (legal) retaliation, the formal name for the eye-for-eye concept. Essentially, the argument is that these murderers gave their victims no consideration, choice, or comfort as they were being murdered, so we are under no obligation to do any better when executing the criminal.

It's easy to see why these arguments have failed to garner my support. The idea of "an eye for an eye" is perhaps more accurately stated as "two wrongs make a right." Even grade-school children understand the fallacy there. If that's a little too on-the-nose for you, consider the words of Martin Luther King: "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind."

I recognize that it's difficult to expect people to make rational choices when it comes to emotional topics like murder. It is perhaps a fundamentally human reaction to desire retaliation when something terrible is done to a family member. The idea of someone I love being tortured, raped, murdered is too terrible to contemplate. I would most likely be out of my ever-loving mind if something like that happened, and desperate for retaliation.

The problem with that is that these killings are being carried out not by a bereaved and distraught family member, but by the cold, sober hand of a government of and by the people. We do not have the luxury of giving in to our deeper emotions when it comes to the actions of the government. We require more of ourselves--rational, even-handed, reasonable action. The lust for blood has no place in guiding how our government carries out our interests.

Even so, it is none of this that makes me uncomfortable. I will argue these points all day with anyone who cares to discuss them, and if you come to the discussion honestly, I feel confident that I can convince you.

As usual, my main problem with this is one of hypocrisy.

The people of my home state are, in large part, deeply religious, and almost all of them profess Christianity. When you meet a new people upon moving to a new place there, you are as likely as anything to be asked, at some point, "So, have y'all found a new church home yet?" When I moved back to Little Rock in 2012, in looking for a new doctor, I was startled to find that every single doctor I reviewed included church membership in his or her online biography. That did not especially inspire confidence in a science-based humanist like myself.

Now, I have noticed that most of the people who claim to be Christians are either not very well informed about what Jesus actually said in the Bible or more inclined to follow Paul. On the latter point, I tend to regard Paul as a Jesus impressionist, sort of like a Biblical Frank Caliendo. Sure, he sort of sounds like Jesus, just like Caliendo sounds like John Madden, but he's kind of doing a caricature. I mean, I do think that listening to Paul is sort of important for Christians, but if you are going to ignore Jesus or Paul, it's better to ignore Paul.

Where this comes in is in the famous Pauline verse, in Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." I have seen well-meaning folks cite that as proof that the death penalty is God-endorsed. The problem with this is twofold. First, you have to consider the context of that verse. Paul isn't discussing how we should handle criminal acts, but rather how the "proper" penalty for sin is death after death (condemnation to hell). In other words, if you commit a sin, what you earn is condemnation. Paul's point, however, is that Jesus's death on the Cross and subsequent Resurrection is payment for that sin, so that all believers can have eternal life in heaven.**

** - I think it's important at this point to note that while none of that makes any sense to me at all on any level, it is nevertheless an accurate accounting of what Christians believe--and, perhaps, the most fundamental tenet of Christianity.

I can see how, in the absence of other guidance, a Christian might be inclined to use that statement to discern what God's will is with regard to earthly justice. The problem, of course, is that there are actual words and actions of Jesus*** that are much more directly on point.

*** - According to the account provided in the Bible, as translated into English. The original is all Greek to me.
Matthew 5:38-39 (from the Sermon on the Mount): 

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Luke 6:27-28 (from the Sermon on the Plain): 

 "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you."

Even so, these passages aren't exactly on point. After all, you might construe them as guides for private conduct rather than what the government ought to do to evildoers. I would then counter that because we are, rather explicitly, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, there is not really any difference between private conduct and public conduct. We have control over what the punishment should be for crimes. And we could go around and around, never reaching the heart of the matter.

And then there is John.

The Gospel according to John is different from the other Gospels. Unlike the other Gospels, it does not contain an account of Jesus's early life. It is solely focused upon establishing the divinity of Jesus and the validity of his ministry. And in John, specifically in the first 11 verses of chapter 8, there is an account of a group of Pharisees,
1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. 3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. 7 So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” 8 And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
Here we have a situation in which the law specified the death penalty for the crime, and the political authority enforcing the law--the Pharisees, who were the Jewish political leaders in Roman Judea at the time--sought Jesus's counsel on how to best to enforce the law.  Jesus's instructions--that the penalty was a valid one, but that its enforcement was left to people who are sinners themselves and thus unworthy of enforcing the law--could not be more clear on this subject.

Now, I am the last person who would advocate for the imposition of lawmaking and law enforcement based on the Bible.  But that's not the point.  I have seen many purported Christians in Arkansas who in one breath condemn abortion and homosexuality; who condemn atheists and agnostics as unfit to teach school or testify in court or hold political office; who fight hard to prevent children from learning about healthy sexual behaviors and contraception; and who voted to prohibit homosexuals from adopting children; all on the basis of their belief in the primacy of the Bible in proper conduct.  In the next breath, they call for the death penalty to be enforced with great frequency and efficiency, even though their principal religious text says to do otherwise.  A large number of Arkansas Christians have been in an utter panic over the last few weeks, worried that they might not get to kill these people.

Perhaps it is too much to expect of people who view forced prayer in their public schools as a good thing, despite Jesus's instructions to pray only privately.

But it is a disgusting hypocrisy, and for it, the supporters of this terrible act have forfeited any claim they have to work toward a "culture of life."

One day, we will come to recognize that the death penalty simply isn't worth it.  That day will come too late for Ledell Lee, whom the State of Arkansas murdered last night in cold blood.  It may come too late for the remainder of the men who have been scheduled to die this month.  But it will come.

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