The measure of our society

One of the highlights of staying up until 3am on Wednesday night/Thursday morning to watch the death penalty abolition debate was listening to state Senator Gayle Slossberg give a rousing speech in support of repeal. Susan Campbell of the Courant has obtained a copy of the entire speech and I would urge everyone to read it.

I have said for years that the death penalty is, at its core, a purely moral and emotional issue. The rest of the reason – deterrence and cost for example – are sideshows. An attempt to dress our passions in the garb of rationality in order to give them a semblance of respect.

But in the end, you either believe in retribution or forgiveness. You either believe that the majority – collectively – should not have the power to dictate whether another lives or dies or you believe that it must. You balance the emotions of compassion and mercy with revenge, anger and retribution. Some come out on one side; some on the other.

The debate on the death penalty is not about the viciousness of the acts of 11 men or the feelings of 4 survivors of homicide who support the ultimate penalty or the 4 who oppose it. There are vicious men who have done terrible things and there always will be. There are people who are opposed to executions and those who support it and that will remain forever.

It is about what we value more (and no, it isn’t about valuing life more, which is why it is not incongruent to believe in a woman’s right to choose and be opposed to the death penalty): that society should act in revenge or society should set the example and offer mercy and compassion and forgiveness.

When opponents of the death penalty chant “not in my name”, it isn’t that we want this particular person to live because we like them, but it’s because we don’t want the Government to take the life of one of our fellow citizens in the name of all of us. It is that governmental action that we decry. We refuse to give the shapeless, amorphous body called “the State” the power to determine whose lives are worthy of permitting to exist.

Today, there are 11 men on CT’s death row of whose guilt there is no doubt. But that is not the case in the rest of the country and will undoubtedly not be the case some time in the future in CT as well. That risk is untenable. We are all fallible beings. We all have made mistakes. As fallible beings, the responsibility of deciding who lives and who dies is too awesome to be trusted to be carried out without error and in good judgment in a way that doesn’t unfairly affect one group or another.

Vengeance is easy. Forgiveness is difficult. As a society, we must make difficult choices. Giving up the power to exact revenge is perhaps the most difficult one of them all, yet it is one we must make, because otherwise, an eye for an eye will make us all blind.


3 thoughts on “The measure of our society

  1. Sandy ACL

    What a great illustration to summarize the point – an eye for an eye makes everyone blind indeed. Especially that the criminal law system is not a perfect system, abolishing death penalty makes just perfect sense. Not all states compensate offenders that have been wrongfully imprisoned. What more if it’s life taken away due to a legal flaw? Even so, death penalty as a measure of society for capital crimes will only continue to show that we have a lot of maturing to do in our understanding of “real” justice.

    Happy for the developments in CT!


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