Capital punishment by Mary E. Williams

By Mary E. Williams

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Mease,” by Deal Hudson, Sed Contra column, Crisis, March 1999. 33 Capital Punishment Frontmatter 2/24/04 8:14 AM Page 34 Capital Punishment • A murderer should be given as much time as possible to undergo spiritual reform. • The death penalty is a punishment that cannot be retracted if new evidence proves innocence. • The death penalty is a punishment, not an act of revenge, and should be viewed without that motive. • The modern state has tragically abused its power over life and death making it preferable that the state exercise that power as little as possible.

The tragedy lies in what, under our confused system, the prosecutors felt compelled to do. The community was called on to speak unambiguously. It flubbed its lines, shrugged its shoulders, and walked away. Which brings me back to our moral condition as a community. I can describe our plight better in artistic than in philosophical terms. The most vivid illustrations I know of self-doubt and its consequences are the paintings and sculptures of Alberto Giacometti (who died in 1966). Giacometti was an artist of “Communities may exist in great integrity; he was consumed by which capital punishment is no intellectual and moral self-doubt, longer the necessary response which he set down faithfully.

As Dennis Prager has written apropos this case, only the victim is entitled to forgive, and the victim is silent. But showing mercy to penitents is part of our religious tradition, and I cannot imagine renouncing it categorically. Why was Cain not put to death, but condemned instead to wander the earth forever? Among the answers given by the rabbis in the Midrash is that he repented. The moral category of repentance is so important, they said, that it was created before the world itself. I would therefore consider myself morally obligated to think long and hard before executing a penitent.

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