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Jewish World Review June 19, 2001 / 29 Sivan, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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The feeble 'arguments' against capital punishment -- TWO DAYS after Timothy McVeigh's execution, The New York Times published eight letters to the editor discussing the event and expressing an opinion on the death penalty. Six of the eight were against executing murderers, one was in favor, and one was in favor in a case of mass atrocity like McVeigh's.

Four days earlier, the Times had published a letter from a death-penalty supporter. The day before that, there had been three letters on the subject, all opposed. A few days earlier, another three letters; again, all opposed. And four letters opposing capital punishment had appeared in May, around the time McVeigh was originally supposed to die.

By my count, then, over the past six weeks the Times has run 19 letters remarking in some fashion on the death penalty, of which 16 -- 84 percent -- were anti-execution.

Now, letters to the editor, even in the nation's unofficial "paper of record," are no gauge of public opinion. It is common knowledge that Americans support capital punishment -- overwhelmingly so in McVeigh's case.

But even if letters published in the Times are no reflection of society at large, they do tell us one thing: what sort of letters the Times, with its global readerships and famously high standards, deems worthy of publication.

So it is striking that the collective case made by the Times's recent blizzard of anti-death penalty letters was so feeble.

With McVeigh's death, wrote Rob Ham of California, "What has changed? The victims are still dead. Do the families now have closure? Can anyone ever have closure after losing a child, a husband, a wife, or a parent?"

This is an appeal to emotion, not reason. Of course the victims are still dead. They would still be dead if McVeigh had gotten life in prison, too. Or 20 years. Or probation. No one thinks the purpose of punishment is to undo the crime, yet death penalty abolitionists routinely remind us that killing a murderer won't bring his victims back to life. If that is a reason to ban executions, it is a reason to ban all punishment.

Ham's "closure" argument, meanwhile, is simply uninformed. The families of murder victims do not stop mourning when the killer dies, but for many, there is indeed a measure of solace in knowing that the monster who destroyed their loved one will never hurt anyone again. Abolishing executions certainly won't bring "closure" to grieving relatives. On the contrary, it will deepen their torment, mocking them each time they remember that the person they loved is in the grave, while his killer continues to breathe.

From Michigan, Dawne Adam wrote that she wept at the news of McVeigh's execution. "It is punishment enough to sit in prison with no possibility of parole. And it is barbaric for any country to murder its citizens, despite the damage they may do."

The barbarism of the death penalty is taken for granted by anti-execution fundamentalists. They believe fervently that when the state kills, even when it kills a homicidal terrorist, it commits a great evil. This is not something they can prove logically or explain rationally -- it is, for them, simply an article of faith.

Why is it barbaric to require that one who violently steals the life of an innocent (or 168 innocents) not be allowed to keep his own? Where is the moral tradition that prescribes life for mass-murderers? How can it be civilizing to tell the world's worst people that no matter no matter how many victims they butcher, no matter what cruelty they inflict on others, the worst that will happen to them is that they will go to prison? Those are questions that abolitionists never answer.

"The loss of freedom for the remainder of one's life is no mild punishment," James Bernstein of New York wrote to the Times. "We do not need the death penalty to express society's utter repudation of those who would take the lives of others."

Bernstein has it exactly wrong. A society that bans the death penalty outright is confirming that it does not utterly repudiate its worst murderers. The United States last week made clear just how seriously it regards McVeigh's monstrous crime. Change the law so that no future McVeigh can be put to death, and the United States will be sending a different message: Mass murder isn't that bad.

Other letters made even weaker arguments. McVeigh should have been kept alive, in one Oklahoma writer's view, so scientists could study him and "try to determine the cause of these acts of violence." A Michigan psychologist wanted him spared so we could analyze "the psychopathy that creates people like him." Capital punishment should be stopped, a New York doctor wrote, because medical ethics bar physicians from playing any role in executions.

And then there were those who hated to see McVeigh miss out on a life rich in beauty and contemplation.

"Would we not all have been better off it Mr. McVeigh had lived a long, secluded life in prison?" asked Michael Pressman of New York. "He could have read history and literature. He could have painted and sculpted and listened to great music. His new-found knowledge and maturity could have obliterated his warped views. He could have lived in profound regret."

Those of us who favor death for murderers rely on history, on common sense, on an instinctive sense of fairness, and on a moral tradition stretching back to Sinai. But in our time as in all times, there are those who would rather let evildoers get away with murder. The debate goes on.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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