Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Off With Their Heads!!!

"Off with their heads!", cried the Red Queen.

That captures, perhaps, the essence of the argument for capital punishment -- put them down and justice is served, retribution is made. The problem is that justice is not confined to victim and perpertrator. There is a larger circle, loved ones, families and the larger society.

Desmond Tutu makes an argument here against capital punishment that is both cogent and emotional -- in my opinion, combined with his personal history and experience, that makes his argument all the more compelling.

On the other hand, I have always been uncomfortable with the concept that capital punishment must never be used.

My reasoning is maybe a bit fuzzy, so please bear with this old fart while he tells you a story:

In 1851, my great grand uncle Nathan Whitney Watson went on a journey from Chicago to Utah City. It was a trip with both business and personal background. During the trip he kept a diary. A little over halfway to their goal a brutal murder was committed by one of the trail hands on the wagon train.

In the early morning the wagon boss was having an argument with one of his trail hands when a brother to the man he was arguing with walked up behind the wagon boss, grabbed him by the hair, pulled his head back and slit his throat with one swipe of his bowie knife. The wagon master bled to death in front of his wife. The killer then went to a wagon, grabbed supplies and, with a rifle over his shoulder, took off on foot, saying that he would "...shoot the first man who tried to follow him".

Not one man, but twelve followed him.

They encircled him and with rifles raised and aimed, closed in on the perpetrator who surrendered and was then taken in custody back to the wagon train. A jury, judge, prosecutor and defender were appointed. The facts were laid out and documented before the jury which gave the verdict "guilty".

The killer was hung that same night and, by his own request, buried on the trail beside the man he had murdered that very morning. My uncle mentions that it was a clear night and that there was a full moon.

My question is: what else could they have done? The wagon train was in the middle of nowhere with ten days in front and behind them to the nearest fort.

My argument is that a small fragile society such as that wagon train had little choice but to hang the killer on the spot. To let him escape would rip the fabric of their vulnerable society. Should they use their few resources to keep the killer prisoner under dangerous and unstable conditions?

And that, dear hearts, is my argument: the death penalty is an option which a weak society must sometimes needs take. On the other hand it is one of the tools used by totalitarian governments to enforce their will upon a public whose support it does not have or is not sure of .

Think about it...

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