McVeigh and the Death Penalty

by | Jul 18, 2001

The execution of Timothy McVeigh has again raised the issue of capital punishment. Much of the case against capital punishment does not rise above the level of opaque pronouncements that it is “barbaric,” by which those who say this presumably mean that it makes them unhappy to think of killing another human being. It should. […]

The execution of Timothy McVeigh has again raised the issue of capital punishment. Much of the case against capital punishment does not rise above the level of opaque pronouncements that it is “barbaric,” by which those who say this presumably mean that it makes them unhappy to think of killing another human being. It should. But we do many things that we don’t like to do because the alternative is to have things that make us even more unhappy.

As Adam Smith said, two centuries ago, “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Those who lost loved ones in the Oklahoma City bombing do not need to spend the rest of their lives having their deep emotional wounds rubbed raw, again and again, by seeing Timothy McVeigh and his lawyers spouting off in the media. McVeigh inflicted more than enough cruelty on them already and they need to begin to heal.

Sometimes those who oppose capital punishment talk about “the sanctity of human life.” The issue of capital punishment comes up only because the murderer has already violated the sanctity of human life. Are we to say that his life has more sanctity than the life or lives he has taken?

Shabby logic often tries to equate the murderer’s act of taking a life with the law’s later taking of his life. But physical parallels are not moral parallels. Otherwise, after a bank robber seizes money at gunpoint, the police would be just as wrong to take the money back from him at gunpoint. A woman who used force to fight off a would-be rapist would be just as guilty as he was for using force against her.

It is a sign of how desperate the opponents of capital punishment are that they have to resort to such “reasoning.” Since these are not all stupid people, by any means, it is very doubtful if these are the real reasons for their opposition to executions. A writer for the liberal New Republic magazine may have been closer to the reason when he painfully spoke on TV about how terrible he felt to watch someone close to him die.

Nothing is more universal than the pain of having someone dear to you die, whether or not you witness it. Nor should anyone rejoice at inflicting such pain on someone else. But one of the fatal weaknesses of the political left is its unwillingness to weigh one thing against another. Criminals are not executed for the fun of it. They are executed to deter them from repeating their crime, among other reasons.

Squeamishness is not higher morality, even though the crusade against capital punishment attracts many who cannot resist anything that allows them to feel morally one-up on others.

It is dogma on the political left that capital punishment does not deter. But it is indisputable that execution deters the murderer who is executed. Nor is this any less significant because it is obvious. There are people who would be alive today if the convicted murderers who killed them had been executed for their previous murders.

Glib phrases about instead having “life in prison without the possibility of parole” are just talk. Murderers kill again in prison. They escape from prison and kill. They are furloughed and kill while on furlough. And there is no such thing as life in prison without the possibility of a liberal governor coming along to pardon them or commute their sentence. That too has happened.

The great fear of people on both sides of the capital punishment debate is making an irretrievable mistake by executing an innocent person. Even the best legal system cannot eliminate human error 100 percent. If there were an option that would prevent any innocent person from dying as a result of our legal system, that option should be taken. But there is no such option.

Letting murderers live has cost, and will continue to cost, the lives of innocent people. The only real question is whether more innocent lives will be lost this way than by executing the murderers, even with the rare mistake — which we should make as rare as possible — of executing an innocent person.

As so often in life, there is no real “solution” with a happy ending. There is only a trade-off. Those who cannot bring themselves to face trade-offs in general are of course unable to face this most painful of all trade-offs. But they have no right to consider their hand-wringing as higher morality. People are being murdered while they are wringing their hands.

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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