Steve Bogart,

bogart at


Killing Killers

May 18, 2001

Killing killers implicitly legitimizes killing as a way to solve problems. As a society, we simply disagree with those we call 'murderers' as to the appropriate criteria for the ending of someone else's life.

If a society wants to condemn murder, it comes across as rather more believable if the government itself does not also kill its own citizens.

Not to mention all the practical difficulties in making sure that everyone condemned is in fact the right person. You can't make innocent dead people alive again, but you can free them if they are exonerated while serving a life sentence. (Timothy McVeigh clearly is the right person, so this leg of the argument doesn't apply to him, but it applies to most others condemned to death.)

During last year's presidential campaign both Gore and Bush said that having the occasional innocent person be executed is unfortunate but basically fine; they both prefer that state of affairs to not killing anyone. Read the relevant Gore interview with the SF Bay Guardian; as for Grand High Executioner Bush's position, well, duh.

To me that position sounds a whole lot like McVeigh's phrasing that dead children were acceptable "collateral damage".

Timothy McVeigh should be locked up for the many remaining decades of his natural life. Killing him gives him publicity and notoriety and spares him many many years of punishment besides. And it shouts loud and clear that killing for the "right" reasons is okay.

I believe murderers think their own reasons for killing are plenty right, too. What do you want to teach the next McVeigh?

  • Botched! [Salon]
    If the government can't get it right in this case, how can we rely on the government to get it right in any case? Regardless of whether this new evidence is relevant to the issue of guilt or innocence in the Timothy McVeigh case, I think it shows clearly that there are problems in the criminal justice system. We cannot rely on this system, particularly when it comes to taking the lives of our citizens. We can simply never rely on the fact that all of the evidence has been brought forward.
    -- Rob Warden, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law

Here's a summary of some European reaction to our habit of killing, along with some interesting statistics:

  • A Matter of Life or Death [TIME Europe]
    Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, more than 700 prisoners have been executed in 31 states, and 3,700 are currently awaiting their turn on death row. That makes America the world's No. 4 executioner, behind China, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. At a time when 108 nations have abolished capital punishment, legally or in practice, the U.S. remains the only major Western democracy to put prisoners to death. (Japan still does, but on a far smaller scale.)

    "Europeans are appalled at the unabated pursuit of the application of the death penalty in the U.S.," says Bianca Jagger, an official of Amnesty International U.S.A. "They cannot understand how the U.S. can claim to be the leading champion of democracy and continue to apply the death penalty."

    Indeed, many anti-death-penalty activists argue that the lack of extenuating circumstances in McVeigh's case strips the issue down to its essential point: the nature of capital punishment itself. "We see this case as an opportunity to show that we oppose the death penalty in all circumstances," says Piers Bannister of Amnesty International, which will hold a vigil outside the Terre Haute prison on the day of McVeigh's execution. "It's not about him. It's about eradicating a cruel, irrevocable and outdated punishment."

If you do feel that killers "deserve to die", at least consider the argument that the current system for accomplishing that is seriously flawed and that it should perhaps be stilled until it doesn't produce "collateral damage."

  • Update: Illinois Death Penalty (10 May 2001) [PBS NewsHour]
    Sister Helen Prejean: When Governor George Ryan stood up and said, "look, I'm for the death penalty in principle, but not like this," he moved it onto a ground where people can be morally decent and fair-minded and not look like they're relinquishing their principles, like they flip-flopped on an issue.

-- Steve Bogart,

Last modified on 5/18/2001; 7:27:59 PM Eastern 
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