Sunday, April 09, 2006

Is the Death Penalty for Moussaoui “Revenge?”

From Jeff Jacoby’s latest column, dealing with the issue of whether Zacarias Moussaoui should get the death penalty:
. . . opponents of capital punishment argue that putting Moussaoui to death would amount to nothing more than blind vengeance.

“Revenge . . . is sweet,” writes Nicholas Coates, an editor at Gulf News; it “is what Americans want more than anything else.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen labels Moussaoui’s trial “a laborious procedure to carry out what most of us recognize is nothing more than revenge. Call it justice if you will, we all know what it really is.” Elizabeth Hayden, whose husband was among the murdered passengers on United 175, argues that the death penalty is “pure vengeance,” the mark of a nation “acting out of fear and hatred.”

But if the death penalty is revenge, life imprisonment must be revenge as well. How can it be “pure vengeance” to execute a man, but not to lock him behind bars for the rest of his life? Especially if, as some death penalty critics claim to believe, life in prison is actually worse than death? A dictionary definition of vengeance is “infliction of punishment in return for a wrong committed.” By that standard, every punitive sanction from a parking ticket on up is a form of revenge. Eliminate the element of retribution from the penal code, and a lot of prison cells would stand empty. Is that what the opponents of “revenge” have in mind?
And of course, if some sort of mindless emotional desire for revenge was driving the proceedings, notions of due process would get pushed aside. But that hasn’t happened here.
Just two weeks ago, the judge in Moussaoui’s case suppressed a very large chunk of the prosecution’s case when a government lawyer was found to have improperly contacted witnesses. Was that the act of a criminal-justice system acting out of fear and hatred, hellbent on putting Moussaoui to death?
Jacoby, although a supporter of the death penalty, is not himself entirely sure that Moussaoui deserves it. But he can readily recognize a bad argument for sparing the would-be terrorist.

Opponents of the death penalty constantly use arguments against it that, if applied logically, would equally rule out other punishments. Is there a possibility of error? Certainly. Is there racial disparity? Yes (although not the sort that most people believe). Are these problems absent where prison is at issue? Certainly not!

Is an execution a terrible thing to inflict on an offender? Most certainly. But where the issue is not the death penalty, liberals will insist that prisons are inhumane, dehumanizing and degrading.


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