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?