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George Will and capital punishment

Tuesday, Nov 4, 2003

There are few people whose opinions I so trust that, when I am ambivalent or ignorant about an issue, I rely on their views to shape my own.

George Will is one of those people.

I have read him for many years, always admiring his knowledge, values and clarity of thought.

It is therefore akin to an earthquake to read his latest column in which he takes a position against a policy that I, and most of his other ideological allies, hold to be one of the pillars of civilized life. George Will has come out against executing murderers.

This is not only stunning for the moral reasons that I will address, but because George Will seems to have abandoned his characteristic depth of analysis.

He offers two arguments — the possibility of the state killing an innocent person and capital punishment’s lack of deterrence value. But these reasons are so easily refuted, and have so often been, that it is difficult to believe that these are George Will’s real reasons for opposing capital punishment.

An innocent may be killed? Many moral social policies have the possibility and even the inevitability of the death of innocents. As I noted in a previous column on this very issue, even if raising speed limits means an inevitable increase in innocents’ deaths, the greater good of higher speed limits will still prevail.

In fact, if preventing the killing of innocents is what should determine capital punishment policy, one should support capital punishment. It is the absence of the death penalty that leads to more innocent people being killed. When there is no death penalty, convicted murderers kill other prisoners and guards; and, when these murderers escape, they kill innocent civilians. If those of us who are for the death penalty have blood on our hands when the state executes an innocent man, abolitionists — now including George Will — have the blood of innocents on their hands every time a convicted murderer murders again.

Recently, a former Roman Catholic priest imprisoned for child molestation was murdered in prison by a convicted murderer. His blood is on the hands of the abolitionists.

And if the system is flawed, fix it. That is what Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is arguing in trying to bring capital punishment back to his state. You don’t end a good policy because it is flawed, you end a bad policy, flawed or not.

Moreover, the possibility of error has always existed, and it is actually less likely to occur today in the age of DNA. I therefore have to believe that other, unspoken, considerations have prompted George Will to align himself on one of life’s seminal moral issues with people with whom he otherwise shares few values.

I don’t presume to know what those considerations are. But they surely cannot be the other reason he gives: Capital punishment doesn’t deter.

The assertion violates common sense. We can never measure how many people do not do something. But more telling is the late Ernest van den Haag’s argument: Imagine a state that passed a law that all murders committed on Monday, Wednesday or Friday would be punished by imprisonment and all murders committed on the other days of the week would be punished by execution. Would murders take place on each day of the week at the same rate as they did prior to the law? I doubt it.

And, in any event, the primary purpose of capital punishment is not deterrence.

It is to prevent the greatest conceivable injustice — allowing a person who deliberately takes an innocent person’s life to keep his own.

And it tells society that murder is evil in ways that no amount of imprisonment can ever convey. Every member of society, from young child to old adult — perceives that killing murderers means society hates evil in a way that it clearly does not if it only imprisons them.

That America still executes murderers renders it unique among the world’s major democracies. It does so because it hates evil more than those other democracies — whether the evil be at home or abroad.

I am certain that George Will knows this and will come to see how our not allowing all murderers to live is an essential part of that uniqueness.

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