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Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2002 /10 Kislev 5763

Dave Shiflett

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Only death will do -- The fate of the alleged snipers (the younger of whom is reportedly singing his own praises as a killer) has inspired the latest round in the death-penalty debate. There are two basic positions. Position one: If these two are guilty, with upwards of 20 notches in their gunstocks, they should be turned over to the headman, or in these days the official needler, who will kill them in much the same fashion as dispatching a sick dog. Position two: Even if the snipers had 100 notches their lives should be spared, for by killing them we have stooped to their level.

Interest has intensified since the suspects were shipped to Virginia, where many a murderer has departed this life courtesy of the state executioner, with a mob celebrating his demise just outside the prison gates. One senses an upswing in support for the ultimate sanction. Snipers, like predatory males who murder little girls, seem to have a talent for bringing people off the fence. Americans are all about finding closure, and many of us natives will be pleased should our state do civilization's duty by exterminating this pair (if found guilty, of course).

But principles are principles, and the antis are sticking by theirs, with the usual sense of moral superiority.

They tell us that killing ten people makes one no more deserving of death than killing one person, or perhaps three thousand people (a figure that may be hung around the head of another federal prisoner). Killing is killing, and killing is wrong. Mark Shields, the celebrity columnist, informed us the other week that we are no better than barbarians for wanting to put snipers to death. Non-celebrity critics, meanwhile, ask why we still execute murderers while "civilized" counties such as France, England, and Germany don't. Another says Iran is the only country he knows of that still executes criminals who are under 18 (suspect Malvo is now supposedly 17). If we execute murderers, we are said to be stooping to their level.

But we're not proposing to operate at their level. We don't want to send a police sharpshooter to knock off the convicts while they innocently pump gas, unload packages, sit on a bench, mow a lawn, or walk to school. There is a vast moral difference between murdering innocent people and killing convicted murderers, just as there's a vast moral difference between bombing an orphanage and bombing the people who bombed the orphanage.

Nor do we feel any special need look up to non-executing countries. Germany has nothing to teach the world about morality, nor for that matter does France or Italy, which both embraced a mass-murdering regime not too many years ago. If Iran executes 17-year-olds who shoot liquor-store employees in the back of the head, and who blow the heads off of women in suburban parking lots, and who gun down kids walking into school, then many of us can agree that they're doing at least something right in Iran.

We might wonder what Mr. Shields would do if he had been in a position to stop the sniper - with the help of a shotgun - just as the sniper was pulling down on a family member or perhaps a favorite nun. One assumes he'd let the sniper have it, with both barrels if necessary. One further assumes that afterward, Mr. Shields wouldn't put himself on the same level as the would-be killer. Far from it. He'd consider himself something of a hero, and he'd be right.

With that in mind, why would he think it's morally okay to kill a would-be murderer, but not to execute the person who actually murders the nun - or 20 nuns, as the case may be, apparently with a great deal of premeditation. It is true that there's no way to proportionally punish a deed as profoundly evil as this. Execution is about as close as we can come.

One social critic has suggested a national referendum on what to do with convicted snipers. His assumption is that we will probably encounter many of them in the future, and they may be harder to catch than these two - who, let's agree, played a significant role in their own capture. He suggests a check-off box on federal tax forms allowing taxpayers to signal if they are in favor of providing federal correctional dollars to states that refuse to execute convicted snipers and mass murderers. He believes most Americans want nothing to do with providing food, shelter, clothing, legal representation to the likes of Charles Manson or David Berkowitz, no matter how sorry the latter says he is.

Many of us bet he's right. We also have a sense that Malvo and Muhammad are likely to encounter a loaded hypodermic sometime in the futures. We see no shame in it. dime.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Dave Shiflett