By FRANK KIRKPATRICK
October 17, 2010
The gubernatorial race in Connecticut, already charged with political passion, has now received a second emotionally powerful jolt: the debate over what punishment to inflict on Steven Hayes, the man who has been convicted in the rape and murder of the wife and daughters of a prominent Connecticut physician. Public sentiment for harsh justice is running high and has dragged Democratic candidate Dan Malloy and Republican candidate Tom Foley into the discussion of the death penalty.
Malloy is opposed to the death penalty in principle, while Foley supports it. Setting aside the question of politics, Malloy has to face the complication of having one position shaped by moral considerations and possibly a different position demanded by an angry public in the supercharged emotional environment surrounding this horrific crime.
Most moral systems counsel against a response determined by the passions of the moment. Because of that, most religions expect consideration of the death penalty's morality to involve a rational look at what is at stake when society intends to take another person's life, in this case the murderer's.
The Catholic view, for example, invokes the notion of a "seamless" web protecting human life, which is shared by many other religious denominations as well as by people whose views have been shaped primarily by secular sources.
This means that life, including that of the murderer, is sacred and must be preserved, especially given that there are other means, such as life in prison, available to society to protect itself from violent offenders. This moral view tries to rise above the emotionalism that is often evoked by a particularly horrendous act.
When former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a strong opponent of the death penalty, ran for the presidency in 1988, he was asked at a debate whether he would consider applying the death penalty if his wife had been the victim of a rape and murder. Although his somewhat abstract answer remained consistent with his previous moral position, it was generally regarded as lacking personal empathy for the horror of such a crime. His poll ratings dropped immediately and he eventually lost the election.
In today's political climate, the electorate seems to hunger for similar overt expressions of outrage against a whole series of woes (manufactured, imagined or real). When candidates do not openly express their deepest feelings about issues that are roiling the American public, they are usually punished at the polls. A rational or religiously based argument against the death penalty may have little traction in the superheated emotional environment of a political campaign.
There is no issue more likely to evoke outrage here in Connecticut than the sickening murder in Cheshire. Its brutality offends us at the deepest emotional level. But moral opposition to the death penalty is intended in part to deter us from actions that are primarily a venting of our strongest emotions in the short run but which would undermine our deepest moral values in the long run. If we return death for death, or an eye for an eye, then soon, as Gandhi put it, the whole world will be blind.
The law, in its wisdom, does not permit the victims of violence or their families to determine the appropriate punishment for the perpetrators of violence. A civilized society has sought to interpose between the horrific act and its punishment a barrier to intemperate and emotionalized reaction. This is not to say that we shouldn't feel outrage at the murders that have taken place. But it does mean that our outrage ought not to be the basis of a rational, legal and moral response to the perpetrators of those murders.
If we say that taking a life is morally wrong (except in case of war or self-defense), then it is hypocritical for the calm and considered moral judgment of society, long after the fact of the murder, to sanction the taking of still another a life when we have the choice not to do so without harming the citizenry. It is not clear that the death penalty deters future acts of murderous violence.
Therefore, the only reason left for imposing capital punishment is revenge. And revenge is an emotion-driven feeling that cannot be defended on moral grounds.
Frank Kirkpatrick is the Ellsworth Morton Tracy Lecturer and professor of religion at Trinity College.
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