I am told constantly that because I am vegan and pro-animal rights, and because I am an environmentalist and support the concerns of preserving ecosystems over human expansion, and because I am sterilized and therefore unable to reproduce, and because I support a woman’s right to have an abortion, that I tend to come across as depressingly anti-human. This is one of the few criticisms that actually troubles me because I consider myself a humanist and all of my interest in social issues, human-rights, and progressive politics has come out of a deeply held respect for human dignity.
But that’s not to say it’s easy for me, because I do struggle with humanism. I often find myself getting frustrated with people’s ignorance and self-destruction and I start referring to my own species as a “disease” or a “cancer” on this planet.
Becoming anti-human is a dangerous path because it invalidates so many important beliefs that I’ve held for so long. Being anti-human would make being anti-racist sort of ridiculous. Being anti-human would make being anti-homophobic or anti-war or anti-sexist pretty pointless. So I strive to believe in humanity in whatever small ways I can.
Of every human rights issue in the world, there is one that is particularly important to me on a personal level and that is the death penalty.
A little over a year ago one of my childhood friends was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. She and I had been really close in middle school and the beginning of high school. We had grown apart after high school which happened with almost all of my friends but I still cared very much for her.
I worried very much about the possibility that her killer would be eligible for the death penalty. Being against the death penalty has been an issue that has defined my attitudes for almost a decade and I would have felt very compelled to speak publicly on the issue if her killer had been eligible for execution. I have had two close friends murdered in the past three years and on both occasions I was spared the difficulty of having to speak out against executing the murderers. The first time one of my friends was murdered the man who killed her committed suicide shortly thereafter, and the second time the prosecutor was unable to make a case for first degree murder so there was no possibility of execution.
I know that at some point in the future one of my friends will be murdered and if the killer is eligible for the death penalty I will feel compelled to speak publicly against his execution. I find it hard to maintain interpersonal relationships as it is and I know that if I advocate against the death penalty for a person who has murdered one of my friends, most of my other friends are going to turn their backs on me. I am relatively used to losing friends over ideological issues but this I know will break my heart.It is strange to me that when I think of the possibility of a friend being murdered, I am most nauseated and terrified by the possibility of all my other friends seeing me go into a court room or to a newspaper and speaking out against the execution of a person who killed that friend.
From a purely rational perspective the death penalty makes no sense. The justice system is admittedly flawed and to have any aspect of such an inherently flawed system that is permanent and irrevocable seems counter-intuitive. Our justice system routinely imprisons people for crimes they didn’t commit, punishes minorities disproportionately, and to give that system the ability to play god and choose life or death for human beings is without any redeeming value.
But truly, discussing the flaws of the system causes one to overlook the real issue: that executing human beings is wrong. To use one murder to supposedly “correct” another murder is flawed logic. You can invent new terms for a murder and call it “justice” or “retribution” but truthfully a murder is a murder regardless of whether an individual does it with a knife or a prison guard does it with a three-drug cocktail. When a human kills another human it’s murder. The cultural institutions we invent to justify it are arbitrary and meaningless. In human history there were dozens if not hundreds of bizarre culturally accepted rituals that we would abhor today. In the 18th and early 19th centuries we justified the way we treated African slaves by legally classifying them as property and equivalent to 3/5 of a human being. The legal and cultural codes invented then to justify slavery are just as empty and without substance as the legal and cultural codes we invent today to justify state-sponsored murder.
The most bizarre part of the death-penalty obsession – the opiate of revenge – is the fact that people feel so passionately about murders that have not affected them personally in any way. When the news reported that my friend’s killer was sentenced to prison time instead of death, there was an outcry among total strangers that justice had not been served and that he deserved the death penalty. I responded to several internet posts saying that I was a friend of the deceased who didn’t support the death penalty for moral reasons and that I would appreciate it if those who were not close to my friend would not advocate for the death penalty to satisfy their own feelings on an issue that had nothing to do with them.
I was astounded when I was told by multiple people that because I didn’t support the death penalty, that I didn’t care for my friend and that I was a better friend to her killer than I was to her. That is how far the bloodlust can take people, to the point of saying that “if you don’t want someone killed, then you obviously don’t care.”
We are always more concerned with our personal satisfaction than we are with taking a moral stand. We want revenge, and for someone to pay for what has happened. The problem is that we only hate murder ’cause it takes away someone from us, we don’t hate murder because it’s inherently wrong. If we hated murder because it is wrong, then we would hate the death penalty because it is no different than murder. When a murder occurs we have a gut reaction and get carried away with our feelings and never stop to think about the effect it has on society when we do things because we want to and not because they’re right.
Many who have doubts about the death penalty worry that if they speak out against it they will be branded as uncaring or a person who sympathizes with murderers. But we shouldn’t measure our love for one another by the lengths we are willing to go to hurt someone who has wronged us. Revenge shouldn’t be the ultimate way to show you care.
The justice system doesn’t work in this country, in fact most of the “systems” in this country don’t work and I’m not sure that they are ever going to work to a degree that satisfies me so I try to keep my hopes for change modest. I know that the day when people respect the rights of animals to live without human interference is probably far off, but I think that the brutality, the inhumane, vengeful medieval practice of executing criminals seems so terrible that even normal people could come to see the error of our ways.
Our ideas of justice should be based on doing what’s right even when it’s hard, even when it inconveniences us, even when it makes us feel small and powerless. Doing the right thing isn’t easy and it never will be. Denying our own emotions, our own desires isn’t easy but we have to do that to be able to make choices that are for the greater good. Yeah it would feel gratifying to see someone who murdered a love one put to death but is it the right thing to do?