“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.” — Attorney General William Barr
In late July, the Trump administration announced its intention to resume executions of convicted murderers on federal death row. As expected, editorial boards, academics, and other liberal activists risked bodily injury stampeding to the nearest microphone or keyboard to condemn the policy.
James Coleman, a law professor at Duke, declared that the administration was merely picking “low-hanging fruit that gives its political base a sense that something is happening.” Professor Brandon Garrett, Coleman’s colleague at Duke, also pooh-poohed the initiative.
“However dramatic it may sound,” Garrett opined, the announcement “does not mean that we should expect to see executions — anytime soon.” Both professors are staunch opponents of the death penalty.
Likewise, The (Raleigh) News & Observer’s editorial board. “The death penalty,” the editors wrote two weeks ago, “is unnecessary, unjust and irreversible.” Capital punishment, in their view, is merely “an act of vengeance.”
Despite the trend away from capital punishment in recent years, these “elite” voices do not represent the majority. Fifty-four percent of respondents to a Pew Research poll in June 2018 said they support the death penalty; 39% said they are opposed. Alas, the elite routinely demean and alienate half — if not the majority — of the population.
Here on American soil, the case for capital punishment has been convincing for about 250 years, and it still is. Changing the minds of opponents is not likely, but achieving some level of understanding is plausible.
A bit of background, to render concrete what would otherwise be purely philosophical: Attorney General William Barr has ordered expedited executions for five specific “gentlemen” on the federal death row. (The infamous Dylann Roof waits in the wings.) Most of their offenses — shockingly cruel and breathtakingly brutal — were committed against women, children and the elderly. We need not dwell on the stomach-churning specifics of their crimes.
Support for capital punishment is derived, in part, from a conviction most of us share: lex talionis, the law of retaliation, in which the severity of punishment corresponds to the severity of the offense. It’s commonly called “an eye for an eye,” but scholars call it “retributive justice.”
When the schoolyard bully finally picks on the wrong boy, and receives a well-deserved bloody nose or busted lip in front of his peers, that’s retributive justice on a smaller scale. The spectacle satisfies most of us, but the editors of The News & Observer would sneer at such retribution as lowly, anachronistic “vengeance.” That term has a negative connotation, but retribution is perfectly legitimate.
But isn’t support for the death penalty synonymous with contempt for human rights? No, contrary to the case made by Margaret Huang, the executive director of Amnesty International USA. She says restarting federal executions is “outrageous. It is the latest indication of this administration’s disdain for human rights.”
Here’s British philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Does fining a criminal show want of respect for property, or imprisoning him, for personal freedom? Just as unreasonable it is to think that to take the life of a man who has taken that of another is to show want of regard for human life. We show, on the contrary ... our regard for it, by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself, and that, while no other crime…deprives him of his right to live, this shall.”
North Carolina should follow the lead of the Trump administration and revive its dusty death chamber.