There is no greater decision we can make than determining whether or not to take a human life.
Every society in the world has struggled with the moral and legal ramifications of using the death penalty. Most have either made the decision to ban it completely, or it is under a moratorium. Only 21% of the nations on Earth still allow this practice including, unfortunately, the three with the largest populations: China, India and the United States. All of the European countries, Canada, Mexico, Australia and even Russia no longer allow its use. So why is it still tolerated in a modern civilization like America? Is it simply an act of revenge? Is it because we want an individual to suffer while at the same time making ourselves feel better about controlling the behaviors of those within our society? Why do we feel like we have to demonstrate that killing is wrong – by killing again?
It is hard to believe that terminating a human life is ever the answer to a problem. Our entire social structure is set up to preserve life at all costs. We do everything possible from the moment of conception until the death certificate is signed to keep an individual alive. No expense is spared to ensure their well-being and longevity. The problem is that at some point we spin 180 degrees and stop believing in the sanctity of life. The same individual that our society educated and kept in good health because his life was considered equal to ours is suddenly deemed unworthy of any mercy and he or she is executed. In one brief moment we decide that life is not sacred after all. We decide that although we are mere mortals we have the absolute right to play God by deciding who lives and who dies.
Embracing the death penalty is a sign of weakness. It is a way of giving up on ourselves. When we execute a human being we are saying that we are not intelligent enough to find a way to deal with the violence that permeates our society. We are convincing ourselves that we are not smart enough to get beyond killing as a solution. In truth we know that the answers to controlling violence, rape and murder is present in the upbringing of a child, both at home and at school. It is at that time that the values we embrace as a free society must be taught and instilled. To kill AFTER the crime has been committed does nothing to heal societies ills and, in fact, creates an atmosphere filled with more violence, hatred and the devaluation of human life.
When someone commits a horrific crime do they suddenly become less than human? Once convicted are they suddenly unworthy of taking their next breath? Do we no longer regard them as worth saving? We must understand that when we take a human life we are all demeaned, we are all diminished, and we are all responsible. It is not our place to decide who lives and who dies because when we make that decision we are committing the very same crime as the person who used a gun to kill someone in a robbery. In both cases human beings are deciding that another person is worthless and can be killed. In both cases it is wrong, it is immoral and it cannot be tolerated. Of course the argument is often made that by killing a convicted felon we keep him from ever killing again, but that can also be accomplished with a life sentence and no parole.
Proponents of the death penalty also claim it is a tremendous cost saving measure. A lethal injection is far cheaper than housing a convict for 30 or 40 years. But there is a far greater cost to us than just money. When we teach our children that it is okay to kill men and women under certain circumstances we are letting them know that we do not believe that all human beings are equal, and that some have less of right to live than others. We instill in them the right to kill if they feel it is necessary. In the end it comes down to this: either we believe in the sanctity of life or we don’t. Picking and choosing who lives and who dies is another way of saying that we do not believe that everyone’s life has equal value and meaning. It is our way of saying that we have absolute authority over other human beings. It says that we are willing to kill a healthy adult – who may be a mother or father – because we do not approve of their actions.
This willingness to kill has a numbing effect on us that produces catastrophic results. When we kill “legally” – whether it’s through capital punishment, abortion or through a seemingly endless stream of wars – we are devaluing human life at every turn. We become less sensitive to death and we begin to believe that it should be permitted in the right circumstances. Of course these are actually situations where there is some perceived benefit to us to end someone else‘s life, but we like to gloss over that fact so that we can feel morally justified in our actions and avoid any nagging guilt that may linger regarding our impulse to kill. We begin to accept death far too easily.
What if one day you were convicted of a crime you didn’t commit and an execution date was set – would you still believe in the death penalty?