Justice

“If you’re daughter was raped and brutally murdered, wouldn’t you want the person who did it to be executed?”

This was a question posed to me some time ago by someone who was violently pro-death penalty. So much so, in fact, that he said that if he were wrongly convicted, he would, “take one for the team,” and still go forth with the execution because he believes capital punishment that much.

As someone who is vehemently anti-death penalty, I found this question initially unfair. It is an emotionally charged question, an obvious attempt not to get me to see what is right with execution, but instead to break with my own personal moral code.

I’m an emotional guy. I cried at the end of Old Yeller, Rainman, as well as at the end of an episode of Highway To Heaven where a poor, orphaned, mentally retarded, homeless boy had gotten in trouble for stealing food not to feed himself, but his only friend in the whole world; a cat.

But emotions are not morals. If anything, our moral codes are an attempt to master emotional impulses. We accept as a moral that stealing is wrong despite the fact that our desire for somethings would emotionally lead us to do so. We accept as a moral that killing is wrong despite the fact that the jerk that just cut around you on the freeway on ramp almost put you in a ditch and REALLY deserves it.

In 1988, presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis was sunk by a very similar question. In an attempt to melt the “Ice Man” image Dukakis had picked up through the campaign, Bernard Shaw asked whether the Democratic candidate would seek the death penalty for the hypothetical murderer/rapist of his wife. Dukakis immediately jumped into a manufactured answer that only solidified his emotionless image.

And so it became evident to me that to just consistently say “no” to the death penalty without looking into my own emotions just wouldn’t be enough. When I was asked that question, I have to admit that I thought it unfair because, yes, initiallyI would turn my back on my own belief. So instead of just brushing off the question put to me, I sought to answer it.

And the question I found myself really asking was, “what is justice?” Does the death penalty provide justice? To me, justice is a very abstract ideal, but it does entail reparation. In the case of murder, true reparation is impossible. My daughter cannot be returned to me.

The Death Penalty, incapable of resurrecting my slain daughter, could not provide reparation, and therefore does not provide justice. The Death Penalty provides revenge, it provides punishment, but it does not provide justice. In further delving into reflection, I asked myself what does come of the Death Penalty? More death. That is all. We have hopes and dreams for our children, aspirations. If my child’s life is cut short, those dreams are lost, and if all I have for recompense is more death, not only would I not feel satisfied, but also I would feel a little guilty.

So what’s the answer? What, to me, would provide justice? Atonement. My daughter’s life was full of promise and hope, full of the possibility of touching lives and making the world a better place. That is what I want from the murderer of my child.

If you would like an example, I present to you Stanley “Tookie” Williams. Stanley is currently on San Quentin’s Death Row, and is scheduled for execution on Dec. 13th. Convicted for murder in 1979, Tookie is also a co-founder of the infamous “Crips” gang. He’s also, since first put on death row, been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

See, Tookie has dedicatedhis life after death to redemption. Even more remarkably, he has fought continuously to repair the greater sin of creating the Crips gang which has for decades lead to countless young deaths all throughout America. He has been instrumental in the facilitation of a truce between the Crips and the Bloods in LA, and with only a matter of two weeks before the end of his life, he’s still working to complete two books. One is a political book, but the other is another addition to his 10 book children’s series encouraging youths to avoid the gang lifestyle.

That, at least to me, is justice. I only hope that Gov. Schwarzenegger sees it as such too.

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