Until Dead

I am a reluctant supporter of the death penalty. I sympathize strongly with those who are against it, but ultimately I value life enough that the death penalty seems to me an appropriate sentence for someone who has committed first degree murder. While I am not a neo-conservative, I do think that the position taken by Hadley Arkes in his debate against Christopher Hitchens and Jesse Jackson convincing, at least more convincing than the position taken by The Nation‘s defenders.

My reluctance is particularly stoked when I read an essay like George Orwell’s A Hanging, that realistically gets into the mind of one who has witnessed an execution in all its humanity and banality. There is little doubt that his essay is based on a first-hand experience of Orwell’s, hence its psychological clarity. Reading Albert Camus also reminds me of the horror of taking a human life.

Recently there were two executions in the United States, that of Troy Davis in Georgia, who was convicted of murdering a police officer, the second of white supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer, who viciously dragged James Byrd Jr., behind his vehicle. Byrd, of course, was black and the motivation of the murder was race. Davis, incidentally, was a black man.

The Davis case was quite prominent in the media, my Twitter feed and Facebook was alight with the latest news about whether the courts would give a stay in Davis’ sentence. It seems that there was strong reason to overturn the conviction as a number of witnesses recanted their testimony. Days after his execution, friends of mine who are typically left-leaning, pro-pacifists are still discussing what they see as the lasting and harmful results of what happened.

What I have noticed, strangely, is that no one is talking about Brewer’s death.

I grant that it would be hard to defend the life of a brutal, murdering, white-supremacist. Who wants to do that? He’s a disgusting excuse for a human being. It’s in cases like Brewer’s that a sentence of death is wholly appropriate (in my thinking). But why isn’t there some, even slight outcry against the taking of his life? The arguments of those who are completely against the death penalty would apply to him as to Davis. But there is silence.

Now, I can sympathise with the Davis case because of the cloud of doubt that hung over it. As one said, pro-death penalty folk should be screaming for a stay on the sentence louder than those against it. I agree. But, in turn, shouldn’t the anti-death penalty folk be saying at least something about Brewer? This apparent inconsistency is bothersome to me. I’d love to hear from someone who is against the death penalty to explain this slip of principle. Maybe I am missing something?



Filed under camus, death penalty, ethics, orwell, politics

2 responses to “Until Dead

  1. Dan

    At least one of the anti-death penalty people I follow on Twitter did say something about Brewer. People generally do not build campaigns around the most unappealing characters who might nonetheless benefit from their causes. If I were to protest prison conditions in Iran for example, I would find an innocent political prisoner-of-conscience, not a really disgusting pedophile to use as my example of a maltreated inmate.

  2. Dan

    As a sort of aside, I wonder how you integrate your libertarian beliefs with support of the death penalty. They aren’t strictly contradictory, but the underpinning of libertarianism (as I understand it) seems to include the idea that governments tend to make a lot of mistakes and given their pervasive power the more they intrude into people’s lives to socially engineer outcomes or whatever, the more they will mess things up. Given the monopoly of government, this is difficult to correct. If government is dangerously unchecked and powerful, isn’t the death penalty the sort of thing you wouldn’t want to entrust to it?

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