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Jewish World Review June 28, 2000 /25 Sivan, 5760

Tony Snow

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Refuting the pacifists -- IN ONE OF THOSE ELECTION-YEAR SPASMS of opportunism, a band of activists has started pummeling Texas Gov. George W. Bush over his state's liberal use of capital punishment. They argue that he possibly could be heartless because executioners someday might take the life of an innocent person.

This is thin gruel, and like most arguments against the death penalty, it relies on shabby analysis, deliberate falsehood and cheap appeals to sentiment. If you doubt that, ponder the most common complaints about capital punishment.

1) It is vengeful.

This mistakes the nature and purpose of punishment. We punish misbehavior because it is wrong, and we assess penalties according to the severity of the crime. Only the Almighty can declare, "Vengeance is mine." The rest of us must search for sentences that fit the crimes. 2) It does not deter crime.

Punishment is not designed to discourage criminality -- although that can be a happy byproduct, as Singaporeans know. Still, if it's deterrence you want, nothing better prevents recidivism than capital punishment. Ted Bundy can't bother co-eds anymore. 3) Mistakes could happen.

As far as I know, nobody has found a single execution of an innocent in the 23 years since the Supreme Court gave Utah permission to shoot Gary Gilmore. The objection that somebody could mess up states a probability, not a principle. It also leaves open the door for killing murderers who are indisputably guilty.

4) The death penalty is racist in practice.

States execute black and Hispanic killers in wildly disproportionate numbers because members of those groups suffer and commit murder far more often than the public at large. Interestingly, minority murderers are less likely to face the executioner than their white counterparts. Those who insist on numerical "equity" may not know it, but they're building a case to zap more black and Hispanic death-row residents. 5) It is immoral.

Scripture doesn't provide a lot of help. G-d spared Cain, but smote others. The Torah endorses lex talionis. Jesus and Paul acknowledged the state's right to kill them, and Mohammed advocated death for certain infidels. In addition, Christian church fathers and Jewish thinkers opposed pacifism and criticized those who recoiled in horror at the prospect of swift, sure and harsh punishment for wrongdoing.

6) Capital punishment is degrading and inhuman.

So is murder.

Let's face it, the case for capital punishment is simpler and more easily supported than the case against. William F. Buckley Jr. was mostly right when he complained that opponents of the death penalty are willing to talk about everything but the moral claim that some thugs, having freely killed fellow human beings, deserve death themselves.

So let me take up his challenge, since I have come to the conclusion that capital punishment is wrong. There is only one consistent reason why: The punishment doesn't fit the crime.

America's founders talked of an inalienable right to life -- a right granted by G-d and thus not revocable by man. (They did believe in the death penalty, however.) I believe life is sacred and no man is entitled to put another to death. I make an exception for war, which features competing rights to life, and sometimes -- as in the Second World War -- a fight over the dignity of life itself.

Here's the key: Either you believe the right to life supercedes all others or you don't. You can't coherently claim that infants possess the right, but murderers don't -- or vice versa. It doesn't matter that the baby is innocent and the homicidal maniac isn't. If innocence enhances one's claim to existence, then so must other endearing attributes, such as beauty, usefulness, intellect or kindness to animals. The right stands alone, and the moment you qualify it, you invite trouble.

The logic that compels me to oppose abortion, eugenics and euthanasia leads me to oppose execution -- even of a Hitler or Eichmann. But make no mistake: Cold-blooded killers have earned the harshest punishment short of death. They have no claim to dignity, comfort, liberty -- and they're certainly not entitled the to hero status conferred by bored literati and dim Hollywood crusaders. Just as our folkloric notions of Sheol feature people laboring eternally under horrid circumstances, there's no reason the worst killers shouldn't get an earthly approximation of hell.

This is an especially crucial point, because many critics of the death penalty seem hostile not merely to lethal force, but to punishment. This breed of "kindness" incites lawlessness and puts everyone in jeopardy. Those who want to abolish the death penalty therefore have an intellectual and political obligation to press just as strenuously for tough sanctions of violent offenders.

But I repeat: You can't espouse a right to life in some cases but not others. You must decide which side you're on. Moreover, since the most vexing disputes of our age will focus on the sanctity of life, this is as good a place as any to let the fight begin.

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