Why Should We Care?

Capital punishment. Why should we care? The trend in recent years is that fewer defendents are receiving death sentences and fewer death row inmates are being executed. The crash of a single jumbo jet could result in more fatalities than the number of prisoners executed in a given year. Very few people, likely no one you know, will be a murder victim. So, why should we care?

Years ago at the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, I put that question to Hugo Bedau, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Tufts University and author of 10 books on capital punishment. “It’s life and death. Why wouldn’t we care?” I didn’t find that a satisfactory answer. 

I put the question to Steven Hawkins, then the Executive Director of the NCADP. “Eliminating the death penalty would remove a layer of violence from our society.” This struck me as a bit counterintuitive. “Aren’t we taking out the bad guys?” I asked. “Maybe, but how are we doing it?” 

Steve got me thinking. The significance of the death penalty is not in how many are being affected. The significance lies in how we want to be regarded as a society. What can be inferred from the way a society punishes its violent outliers? It can reasonably be asked about one who takes the life of another, “Does he deserve to live?” And that question might be met with another, “Do we deserve to kill him?”

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- Rick Stack