On Friday, Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by a firing squad. The manner in which he chose to die—now outlawed in his state of Utah but allowed for him as someone whose sentence predated the ban—has generated news. For some, the seemingly anachronistic method of execution only underscores the barbarity of capital punishment in general.
I’m not entirely sure these sentiments are fair. What we see in such a broad condemnation is pacifistic reasoning implemented by those who are largely unwilling to carry it through to its conclusion: pacifism. A significant majority of Americans reject pacifism and rightfully so. There are legitimate reasons for killing. A man, for instance, may use lethal force to protect his life or, alternatively, a state may engage in a just war.
For our concerns, we must consider the issue of capital punishment in more specific terms. We must ask whether the death penalty is necessary in the United States today. I don’t mean to create fake suspense so I’ll say what to me is obvious: No, it’s not necessary. In the modern developed world, there is ample ability to incapacitate a criminal for life and ensure society is safeguarded.
Because of this, the implications of capital punishment are altered. It’s not that the death penalty is always wrong, but it is wrong in circumstances where it’s not needed.
To kill unnecessarily does two things: First and most obviously, it takes a life. Again, note there are valid causes to do so but also realize the seriousness of willingly inflicting death. Try as I might, I’ll admit, I can rarely bring myself to feel a tremendous amount of empathy for those on death row guilty of horrifying crimes. Yet, to dismiss the taken life as merely that of a murderer implicitly devalues the notion that a human life has meaning by sheer faculty of existing.
Along those lines, I would also highly recommend the published prison letters of Jacques Fesch to see the realization of human potential within a man guilty of murder and awaiting his execution.
I return, though, to the notion that necessary state executions are fundamentally different in moral correctness from those that aren’t. This fact leads to the second reason we should be concerned that people can be legally put to death within the United States: The legal system does not exist within a vacuum.
It is both the product of its culture and also a device for cultural formation. A society in which a significant cultural influence upholds the idea that it is permissible to unnecessarily kill is inferior to one that prohibits such killing. A culture that allows for unnecessary death in one place is likely to accept it in other, less ambiguous, areas.