Abstract morality, concrete realities


Yesterday's New York Times ran a story about a Methodist congregation in Connecticut that is dealing with its traditional opposition to the death penalty in the face of the murder of two of its congregants.

I am reminded of something that was said the first time I attended a church in my adult life. Back in 1988, I visited a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Midwest on a day when they featured a guest speaker who was from the state chapter of the ACLU. He mentioned in the talk that he gave that day that, after having been mugged, many people asked him if that experience made it difficult for him to justify to himself his pro-civil liberties positions with respect to criminal defendants. His answer was no. "I was against crime before I was mugged, and I still am."

Taking the moral high road is not, and never should be, dependent on whether or not you are personally involved; and being against vengeful forms of "justice" has nothing to do with being against the crimes involved. One can easily ask a death penalty opponent how one would feel if a loved one was murdered (and, in fact, this very question was asked of Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential debates.) The obvious answer in such a hypothetical scenario is really quite simple: "I was against murder before it happened, and I still am."

(In fact, one could point out that those who oppose the death penalty do so precisely because it is a form of judicially sponsored murder.)

In any case, abstract principles are meaningless unless you are willing to put them into practice even when it affects you personally.

In this instance, interestingly enough, one of the victims of this murder may have taken a proactive stance in that direction:

At the same time, there is a widespread belief that Mrs. Hawke-Petit was opposed to capital punishment. Having her killers put to death would be the last thing she would want, many say.

“It’d be so dishonoring to her life to do anything violent in her name,” said Carolyn Hardin Engelhardt, a church member who is the director of the ministry resource center at Yale Divinity School Library. “That’s not the kind of person she was.”

At least two church members say they think that Mrs. Hawke-Petit endorsed an anti-death-penalty document known as a Declaration of Life. The declaration states a person’s opposition to capital punishment and asks that prosecutors, in the event of the person’s own death in a capital crime, do not seek the death penalty. The documents have been signed by thousands of people, including Mario M. Cuomo, the former governor of New York, and Martin Sheen, the actor.

“She was a nurse and she would not cause harm to anyone,” said Lucy Earley, a congregant who notarized at least a dozen declarations during an appeal at the church and said she thought Mrs. Hawke-Petit’s was among them.
In a classic case of a prosecutorial double standard, a prosecutor not connected with this case made this claim:
“Our job is to enforce the law no matter who the victim is or what the victim’s religious beliefs are,” said John A. Connelly, a veteran prosecutor in Waterbury who is not involved in the Cheshire case. “If you started imposing the death penalty based on what the victim’s family felt, it would truly become arbitrary and capricious.”
The problem with the above statement is that the feelings of the victim's family are almost always brought into play by supporters of the death penalty when it suits them. Capital punishment is constantly being touted as a way of institutionalizing vengeance on behalf of the victim, as a way of bringing closure to the victim's family, as a means of fulfilling their need for "justice", and so on. But if the victim was an opponent of capital punishment, then suddenly their feelings don't matter at all. Funny how that works.

Of course, I can completely understand how this is a sensitive issue for the members of this congregation where two of their members were murdered. Sensitivity towards the families of the victims does make the entire situation difficult for everyone involved. Ultimately, I think that the prosecutor that I quoted above does make a valid point--it really shouldn't be about how the victim felt or how the victim's family feels. But, of course, once you take that matter out of the equation, one of the most commonly expressed justifications for capital punishment goes away. Instead of institutionalizing vengeful violence through judicial means, we need to instead ask ourselves what a humane and just society does in response to crime.