POLITICAL POWER, then, I take to be a RIGHT of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.
John Locke, 2nd Treatise on Government
Of all the things that I’ve rethought over the years, there is perhaps none more important than capital punishment. I have been unabashedly pro-death penalty in my lifetime. At turns, I justified this through all manner of reasons (see the Locke quote above for a popular one), but at no point was I in the right.
Which is why, of all of the things I have to recant, there is perhaps none more dismal than my feelings on capital punishment.
I don’t know many of the details of Troy Davis‘ case. I haven’t been following the trials. In fact, I didn’t even know about the case before yesterday.
But I’ve come to this conclusion: human nature — and our predilection for doing things in error or for our own benefit — is reason enough to take away from the state the right to kill human beings.
The state is already force. It exists because of force. It operates through force. Extending that monopoly on violence even one iota further is a grave mistake.
I’m not talking about defending your country through war. I’m not talking about defending your family in your own home from an intruder. The right to self-defense — in that heated moment — is an inalienable one.
I’m talking about giving to the state the responsibility of executing humans. Of putting human beings on trial, putting them at the mercy of fallible witnesses, putting them at the mercy of fallible experts, putting them at the mercy of fallible prosecutors, and then putting them to death.
There’s the turn.
It’s not that I can’t understand the compulsion. If a person came into my home and took my family from me, I could only hope for a darker end for that person than the state’s lethal injection chamber.
But we are fallen, broken, erring people, each of us. We are prone to mistakes and biases and rash judgments. And capital punishment exists as a moment that cannot be retracted. If new evidence surfaces later, there is no chance to double back. If new forensic tests emerge, there is no possibility of retrial. We have given the state the ability to irreversibly snuff out a life.
And that — that — is why I can’t support the death penalty.