Revenge is the reason for capital punishment
Emotions hard-wired by evolution
The death penalty is an emotive issue because it goes to the heart of what we as human beings think about ourselves, about who we are and the meaning of our lives. It is almost impossible for anyone to be neutral on the issue of capital punishment.
Capital punishment has been around for as long as we can tell, as have war and other varieties of violence.
Anger and the desire for retribution, like the “fight or flight” responses, have been part of the human experience since homo habilis first struggled to stand upright on the African savannah some 2.2 million years ago, and are hard wired into our brains for evolutionary reasons.
One possible reason for the existence of the desire for retribution or revenge is that it helped to bring cohesion to early human groups, as it promotes an “us and them” ethic.
The question now is whether or not these emotions and desires are still needed? Do they indeed still serve humanity?
Law, Religion and revenge.
One of the most famous sayings about revenge, at least in Western culture, comes from St Paul's letter to the Romans (12: 19, KJV): “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” This in turn is a paraphrase from Deuteronomy (32: 35 KJV): “To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.”
On the face of it these two quotations contradict quite directly the lex talionis as found in Leviticus (24: 19 – 21 KJV): “And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again . And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it; and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.” Similar injunctions are contained in Exodus 21, especially verses 24 and 25.
Lex talionis refers to a code of justice in which the punishment for an offence is identical to the offense. The Code of Hammurabi, the sixth Babyonian King, was such a code. The following are some examples of the sorts of offenses and punishments listed in the code, which dates from around 1790BCE:
If anyone ensnares another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.
If anyone brings an accusation against a man, and the accused goes to the river and leaps into the river, if he sinks in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river proves that the accused is not guilty, and he escapes unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.
If anyone brings an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if a capital offense is charged, be put to death.
The even earlier code of UR-Nammu, from about 2500BCE has similar injunctions:
If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.
If a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.
But this code does not exactly follow the Lex Talionis model, as some offenses are punishable by fines:
If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out ½ a mina of silver.
If a man has cut off another man’s foot, he is to pay ten shekels.
If a man, in the course of a scuffle, smashed the limb of another man with a club, he shall pay one mina of silver.
If someone severed the nose of another man with a copper knife, he must pay two-thirds of a mina of silver.
Jesus of Nazareth famously and emphatically contradicted such formulations: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” (Matthew 5: 38 – 41 KJV).
And again He said in Matthew 7: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
What is revenge?
Revenge is a poison meant for others that we end up swallowing ourselves. Vengeance is a dark light that blinds all who seek it. The untroubled soul knows there is no justice in revenge. The untroubled soul knows that to seek vengeance is to seek destruction. - Buddha
According to the Wikipedia article on revenge, it is “a harmful action against a person or group as a response to a real or perceived grievance.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revenge retrieved on 14 March 2010.)
The problem with it is that while it might give the person taking revenge some temporary satisfaction, in the long run it simply leads to further “harmful actions” as the person against whom revenge is taken now has a grievance of their own to avenge. And so the “spiral of violence” begins, and is is a vicious cycle which seemingly has no end, unless someone makes the conscious (and brave) decision to stop it.
The “spiral of violence”, a phrase now in common use, was first coined in 1970 by Dom Helder Camara. It is a metaphor for the meeting of violence with violence, in Camara's writing in a social sense, but it can easily and usefully be applied also to individuals.
Blood feuds and the rise of the Cosa Nostra are the result of the search for vengeance and are typical examples of the spiral of violence.
In personal relationships the spiral of violence often starts with a perceived insult or wrong perpetrated by another. This lets the individual feel bad, feel attacked and personally threatened. The natural response is to defend against the perceived attack, which the other perceives as an attack on them against which they defend, and so the spiral gets going and gains a momentum of its own, and the longer it goes on the more difficult it becomes to stop it. Peace becomes a distant dream, and each player in this vicious cycle feels justified, each feels within their rights to carry on defending. Indeed, it is often a matter of honour, a duty, to keep up the momentum of the spiral as it winds ever downward to greater and greater violence and injustice.
This deadly spiral can destroy individuals, families, clans, nations, and if it is not stopped, it will destroy humanity. That is why it is so important to bring reason into the situation.
The death penalty – what is it for?
Arguments in favour of the death penalty usually cite deterrence as the most important reason for capital punishment. The jury is still out, as it were, on whether or not the threat of execution really is a deterrent, but in the research I have done into the literature on it the balance seems to be in favour of the death penalty having little use as a deterrent. Statistics in the US seem to show that those states which still maintain executions have a slightly higher homicide rate than those states which do not. Common sense would indicate that crimes of passion, murders committed in the heat of the moment do not allow the perpetrator time for reflection, so thoughts of the possibility of execution are most likely not going to have any influence on their actions. Pre-meditated murders are most likely committed by people who have factored in the possibility of execution and have considered the risk acceptable, and so again the possibility of execution is not likely to sway them.
The other argument frequently used by those in favour of the death penalty is the permanent removal from society of people with evil intents. There are surely other ways to ensure that such people are taken out of society and prevented from doing further harm.
So what is the death penalty for? I think it is there simply to satisfy people's need for revenge. It is there simply to carry out the lex talionis, and as I have tried to show above, this will simply start a new spiral of violence. One has to ask, does this in any way advance society or the people who comprise it?
Acting from the desire for revenge is allowing primitive motives to overrule reason. It is a throwback to a time when human life was deemed a part of nature “red in tooth and claw” and actually has no place in modern society.
In his essay “Reflections on the guillotine” (1957) French writer Albert Camus wrote: “Bloodthirsty laws...make bloodthirsty customs.”
“We French knew it in the in the past,” he continued. “And may know it again. Those executed during the Occupation led to those executed at the time of the Liberation, whose friends now dream of revenge.”
Another powerful argument against the death penalty is the issue of mistaken judgement. It is well known that many people have been exonerated and found to be innocent, if they were lucky, just before being killed, others after they had already died. It is a very grave thing to put a person to death wrongly.
The final argument against the death penalty is the issue of arbitrariness. As Rich Miller wrote in the Chicago Tribune of 22 October 2009 (http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2009/10/deathrow.html): “One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty – after the argument that our courts have the unfortunate habit of convicting innocent people from time to time – is that it's arbitrary. Even in cases such as these in which there's little doubt of guilt, research shows that the difference between life and death can be such factors as the race of the victim, the county in which the crime occurred and the income level of the defendant.”
When in March 2011 Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, after weeks of painful deliberation, signed the Bill abolishing the death penalty in his state he said: “If the system can't be guaranteed, 100-percent error-free, then we shouldn't have the system. It cannot stand.”
How is it possible for Christians defend the death penalty, especially in the face of Jesus's of-repeated injunction to his followers not to judge, and not to seek revenge?
Camus, not himself a believer, also asked about Christian support for capital punishment: “”The unbeliever cannot keep from thinking that men who have set at the centre of their faith the staggering victim of a judicial error ought at least to hesitate before committing legal murder.”
Finally, is it possible to teach people that killing is wrong by killing? That is the worst kind of “do as I say, not as I do” kind of admonition.
Indeed the death penalty only further brutalises an already brutal situation and does nothing of value for society.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010