Why capital punishment is never the right thing
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight shares his thoughts on capital punishment.
I’ve never written about capital punishment before. But the debate continues to emerge from time to time – most recently in response to the appropriate sentence of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. On the BBC show The Big Questions we had one or two people arguing in favour of capital punishment for extreme crimes. But most powerfully, there was a Christian couple on the show who had lost their son through the actions of a group of killers – but who had taken it upon themselves to forgive the offenders, and show determination in championing forgiveness as a good general principle for life.
My position regarding capital punishment is that I do not think it should ever be employed. I hold this view on the basis that I can see no good arguments in favour of capital punishment, and that I can see several good arguments against it. There is one frequent defense of capital punishment – the one about saving taxpayers’ money by not incurring the cost of incarcerating criminals for a lengthy duration. It isn’t because this argument is factually wrong that I object (although it is factually wrong at least some of the time, because in many cases the money spent on death row appeals is astronomically greater than that which would have been spent on incarceration). No, I object on the same grounds that I would object to all instances of capital death – quite simply, I think everyone has the right to not be put to death. I had felt a strong attachment to this view from an early age, just as I remember at an early age adopting a strong conviction towards the idea that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, as long as that expression remains within the orbit of the law.
In fact, the two are related; since my teenage years of reading works like John Milton's Ario Pagatica, Thomas Paine's Introduction To The Age Of Reason, and John Stuart Mill's Essay On Liberty, I have felt sure that freedom of expression is a vital part of being human. This, principally, is what repels me away from capital punishment – it cuts short a life and denies that person the chance to repent, reform and exhibit genuine sorrow and regret for the bad things they have done.
Do you see how freedom of expression and the right to live are related? If you take away a man’s ability to express himself, you rob him of what he is – a person with emotions, thoughts and feelings. That is why denial of expression and denial of life are really two wings of the same abomination. It is not just the case that denial of expression is bad for the man being denied his right to express – it is a double edged sword, because whenever we humans hear a voice or read an opinion which is from someone unlike ourselves, or vastly different from the common opinion, we actually deny ourselves the right to hear or read the expression. In other words, it is not just the right of the person that speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone else to listen; and every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own actions because you deny yourself the right to hear something different.
Capital punishment should be eradicated because it denies human beings their own right to hear from those from whom we might learn something. And part of that denial involves denying ourselves the chance of what could be vital information. We might put a murderer to death and later find that he may have committed other murders. A future interview might disclose the whereabouts of bodies or it might get an innocent man off the hook. Moreover, in cases of extreme psychopathy there may well be much information that psychologists and, in particular, neuroscientists can learn about psychopathic and sociopathic illness, as well as other vital knowledge about impaired mental health and extreme behaviour.
But most of all, as I have already alluded to, I think capital punishment denies criminals the chance to make things right with God, and perhaps also make amends with their own victims or the family of those victims. Just like that lovely Christian couple on The Big Questions – a significant part of their healing came when they could express God’s love to the young men who killed their son, and witness those young men genuinely remorseful for what they had done.
We are all sinners, and quite often it is remorse, sorrow and regret that puts us on the road to realising how much we need God’s love and grace in our lives. So from both the Christian perspective and the non-Christian perspective, a genuine regard for humanity’s well-being knocks from under me any grounds I could have for endorsing capital punishment.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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