Moral leadership in this country is as dead as it was during slavery.
Citizens should be appalled at the way the death penalty is discussed today. Like the slavery debate, the discussion on the death penalty has been subverted by economic and legalistic rationales and both parties are responsible. Conservatives rail against the taxpayer dollars spent on prisoners and liberals bemoan the broken and unjust judicial system that fills death row disproportionately with black men. Prisoners are expensive and the justice system is racist, but neither argument should matter.
The death penalty debate is fundamentally about values. By making it about something else, we allow the American people to hide.
The South’s economic defense of slavery obscured the important debate of whether or not owning a human being was morally acceptable to Southerners. Today’s Republicans are doing the same thing by making the cost of keeping prisoners alive a central feature of the death penalty debate. Liberals are guilty too, though not equally so. Institutional racism, judicial failures, and “cruel and unusual punishment” are not the biggest reasons to abolish the death penalty. The country might eliminate jury bias and rid itself of incompetent judges and come up with a more effective cocktail. But addressing those practical concerns shouldn’t end the debate.
Money and legality and constitutionality and everything else distract from the issue. I have more respect for South Carolinian preachers who believe that the death penalty is a proper and fitting punishment in accordance with their religious convictions than I ever will for a liberal college student hiding behind precedent or the Eighth Amendment.
The crisis the American public faces as it confronts the death penalty is a moral one and should be faced with moral arguments, not with amicus briefs or spreadsheets.
The American public has an obligation to ignore legal and economic reasoning for or against the death penalty. They should dismiss with great prejudice the notion that any legal code or judicial precedent or constitution is so sacrosanct as to supersede the moral compass of America as a republic. They should resent the implication that the fractions of a penny a taxpayer might save is of greater value than a human life. The American public should seethe and hiss and boo at the prospect of community leaders and congressmen and even sitting presidents that make arguments for or against the death penalty on the basis of anything other than their consciences.
Laws can be struck down and constitutions can be amended. Prisons can be made less expensive and judicial systems can be made more fair. There is more to the death penalty debate than practical concerns and justifications. There is a moral imperative to consider, a responsibility to fully confront divisive issues. Objections to the death penalty on practical grounds are reasons to repair the system, not abolish it.
Society has the right, even the responsibility, to protect itself. The American republic is empowered to repel foreign invasion, suppress incursions, and jail violent criminals in order to protect the citizenry. Every constitution in the world has a societal self-defense provision. But should that right extend farther? How much farther? Is a nation empowered to dispense punishment outside the bounds of societal self-defense or does the buck stop with security? Is vengeance the dominion of the state or is that too high a price to pay for a victim’s closure?
There is an incredibly important debate to be had here and we’re missing it. Any American unable to stand for or against the prospect of a death penalty on the basis of morality and conviction alone stands in dereliction of their duties as a citizen. Systemic attacks and economic defenses are predicated on impermanent premises and detract from the more important discourse. The death penalty is justice or the death penalty is barbarism. It is exactly that clearcut.
Finkel is a member of the class of 2018.