Every argument opposing capital punishment — e.g., it fails to deter would-be murderers, it’s administered according to racial/economic bias, it kills innocent people — evades the fundamental basis for why state execution, when used with discretion, is just.
One example of these evasions appeared in a New York Times editorial on the day Timothy McVeigh was executed. Its concluding paragraph read:
“Some will say that there are at least 168 reasons to execute Timothy McVeigh. His death, foregone though it is by now, will redeem none of those lives. As a society, we must value life more than he valued the lives he destroyed. That is a faith that Timothy McVeigh was unable to reach but which still lies within our power.”
In part, the Times here subtly propagated its anti-capital punishment stance through ambiguous language. Let’s examine this.
The first sentence obviously refers to the people who correctly believe that murdering 168 individuals was reason enough to execute McVeigh. The next sentence suggested that these people believe capital punishment will “redeem” the lives of a murderer’s victims. What exactly does this mean?
Used in this context, “redeem” means “to regain or recover.” Allegedly, supporters of capital punishment wanted McVeigh executed because that would somehow bring back his victims’ lives. This ridiculous stance is held by no serious supporter of capital punishment. Nevertheless, their opponents shamelessly propagate it as one of their basic beliefs.
In reality, however, capital punishment is just because it rests on the fact that a murderer destroys the right on which all other rights exists — the right to life. It is precisely because an individual cannot redeem his lost life that when he loses it through murder the only comparable punishment is that the murderer also lose his life.
It is this most fundamental issue of capital punishment that the article’s last two sentences attempted to destroy without directly addressing it.
“As a society, we must value life more than he valued the lives he destroyed,” read the next-to-last sentence. This demand that we value “life” begs the question: What life?
The concept “life” here is used in its broadest sense. If taken literally and to its logical conclusion, as it should be, this sentence demanded that we value life as such — in any form — even the life of a killer virus such as AIDS. But a virus’s life is not what the Times wanted us to value, as the article’s final sentence suggested: “That is a faith that Timothy McVeigh was unable to reach but which still lies within our power.”
Let’s translate these last two sentences: McVeigh should be valued simply because he was a “life,” despite that he chose an action that viciously ended the lives of innocent human beings; and just because he was unable to hold any life as an intrinsic value, we can do so and thereby value a murderer’s life enough to not want to execute him.
However, believing values are intrinsic can lead people to murder as McVeigh did. It demands that we value any life regardless of its actual value according to a rational standard. Operating on the essence of this corrupt theory, McVeigh treated each human life he murdered as that which should be intrinsically dis-valued.
Believing any life is intrinsically valuable demands that one make no essential distinction between the actions of, for example, an innocent baby murdered by McVeigh and the vicious murderer himself. Similarly, McVeigh made no distinction between the people he believed were murderers, such as the government officials who had people slaughtered at the Branch Davidian compound (the alleged motivation for committing his crime), and the innocent lives in the Murrah Federal Building that he ended.
Ultimately, the anti-capital punishment proponents want no distinction made between the nature behind the killing perpetrated by McVeigh — the deliberate ending of innocent human life — and the killing perpetrated by the state — the deliberate ending of a human life guilty of murder.
But what lies within our power is our ability to judge people as good to evil based on their actions that either essentially advance or destroy human life, that is, between acts of justice or injustice. Preserving the value and rights of innocent human life depends on understanding and upholding these distinctions.