Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Death Penalty: A Religious Precept, or Simple Just Desserts?

T.J. Lane was seventeen years old in February of 2012, when he brought a .22 pistol to his high school and killed three of his classmates in cold blood; two boys sixteen years old, one seventeen. He was convicted of murder.

At sentencing he wore a T-shirt to court with the word “Killer” scrawled on it and made the following statement:   "The hand that pulls the trigger that killed your sons now masturbates to the memory," he said, then cursed at and raised his middle finger toward the victims' relatives.

Because of his age he could not be sentenced to death for the premeditated mass murder. The judge sentenced him to life without parole. Whole story here:

I do not think all murderers deserve the death penalty. But if ever there was a justification for capital punishment the conduct of Lane is it, irrespective of his age. I look at this from a purely pragmatic perspective, sans emotion. Simply put: any one who compounds the pain that their crime caused the  victims’ families, and society by imposing incremental mental anguish on the survivors above and beyond the brutal act itself, is beyond redemption, beyond the realm of deserving of sympathy, compassion or mercy.

Such a person has divested himself of all humanity, surrendered that which makes a human better than a mindless predatory animal that kills on blind instinct, and thus forfeits any manner of mercy or consideration. Permitting such a person the continued benefits of life, such as they are in prison, can no more be justified than permitting a rabid dog to live.

My position was criticized by a facebook friend in that he perceived my position to be founded on religious precepts; that my expectation that such a criminal should pay the ultimate price is “…about punishment and wanting people to pay their penance and suffer for their crime … a religious notion.”


Punishment is in deed part of our judicial system, and necessary to signal to society that extreme divergence from societal norms will not be tolerated; and that the severity of the penalty will fit the severity of the crime(s). Capital punishment was employed well before the Abrahamic religions, before the first monotheistic religion in Egypt, and before the invoking of God/or gods for meting out punishment for violation of civil law.

The US Conference of Bishops opposes capital punishment, and the Catholic Church has, since 1997, revised the Catechism and opposes it in almost every instance. Further there are very few examples of the death penalty being imposed by Jewish Law in rabbinic times. Israel outlawed the death penalty, except for Nazi war criminals, in 1954. No, if anything, objection to capital punishment is more in line with the Western religionist concept of human-centric thinking, viewing the human species as "sacred" and worthy of more consideration than a violent mindless animal species.

The" boy" in question is a mass murderer, seemingly incapable of connecting with that part of the psyche that would, in the vast majority of humanity, at least not seek to heap pain upon the innocent suffering victims of his crime after the fact.. He's incapable of feeling remorse; incapable of asking for forgiveness; unable to even empathize with the victim’s families, preferring to heap insult on injury that will never heal. He has admitted he derives satisfaction from his actions and thus is utterly ill suited for living along side humans who possess even a modicum of humanity ... that includes other inmates. The wantonness of his anti-social acts exemplifies the kind of person for whom forfeiture of ones life is justified, the reason the death penalty exists.

One can disagree. One can dismiss the death penalty as archaic, barbaric and inhumane. I understand that perspective, and respect it, albeit I disagree. But, let’s leave labeling religiosity as the driving force behind an atheist advocating for capital punishment out of the argument, because at best invoking religiosity in this discourse is a double edged sword.


Hirondel said...

Worth reading on the subject is George Bernard Shaw's preface to his play "Major Barbara", in which he discusses prison, capital punishment and society. Shaw believed that society should not force men to waste their lives guarding prisoners, yet realized that in some circumstances, society had to prevent individuals from disruptive behavior not motivated by basic survival needs (e.g., shoplifting a loaf of bread because you're hungry).

G.B. Shaw's solution was to create a socialist society which would remove the need to pay for food, clothing, housing and basic necessities as a motive for crime, and abolish prisons.

Then, in the case of people who despite careful & patient counseling still repeatedly persisted in serious crime (of any kind), society should painlessly execute them, with sincere apologies, as useless troublesome annoyances.

You can't argue against the logic…

Dromedary Hump said...

great concept... If only.


Carl said...

I agree there are some criminals that can be rehabilitated but then there are the ones such as the shooters in Aurora and New Town who are pure psychopaths and no rehabilitation possible.

Dromedary Hump said...

If the Aurora shooter doesn't get the death penalty, it will only be because they found him insane. It wouldn't surprise me.

Anonymous said...

A bit of digging online it was easy to find some other teens who said TJ Lane was relentlessly bullied at school.

Other online tomes written by some of his friends [who set up various FB fan pages of his murderous deeds] were proud that he had killed "socialist" students.

Am pretty sure if we read these kids local news providers, we would see more of the teens' comments to eek out motivation of yet another heinous school shooting. Officials claim that TJ has provided no information as to why he was prompted to kill.

Anonymous said...

I originally thought that life in prison was much more of a punishment than death (the easy way out), and in some respects I still do.

However, if I look at it from the perspective of a parent of a murdered child, I'd want this guy dead. I would seethe with constant anger, imagining that this guy was laughing in prison, watching TV while my child's bullet-torn body lay cold in the ground.

Yes, I'd want him dead...and not killed the easy way with a tiny needle. Give him the chair.

Dromedary Hump said...

There is something to be said for the closure that the death penalty may help give (some) victims' families.

And whether it is called revenge, or retribution, or even the old biblical "eye for an eye" ... it is driven by a basic human desire, not a religious precept, as it is universal.

Some will say that is reflective of humanities most base instincts and we should have evolved from that. Perhaps. But it is as ingrained as is the need to provide for the common good of a social unit.

Chatpilot said...

I completely agree with you on this subject. It's interesting that you stated that this person did not deserve to live anymore than a rabid dog. I have said this for years! There are some people whether they be insane or not that are just unfit to live.

Another problem I have with this story is that they let him walk into the courtroom wearing that shirt in the first place! I would have presented him before the judge shirtless!

Anonymous said...

"And whether it is called revenge, or retribution, or even the old biblical "eye for an eye" ... it is driven by a basic human desire, not a religious precept, as it is universal."

Yeah, if it affects you personally. But I presume you're not involved personally. What do you want revenge for?

Dromedary Hump said...

The punishment of those who degrade civility benefits not just the person/s directly impacted by their anti-social behavior, but society as a whole.

It reaffirms the bond and continuity of the social order and has a cathartic effect.

Anonymous said...


I don't disagree that that can be true. People say religion has the same benefits, which I hardly find ironic.

Dromedary Hump said...

One is based on reality, with genuine positive benefits for society as a whole. Society benefits from the offenders permanent removal, and confirmation of the degree to which human life is valued.

The other based in delusion and superstition which more often than not has resulted in set backs and horrors heaped upon society.

Noything Ironic about it. The differences are easily discernable if one can stop long enough to examine it and care to divest themselves from attempts to support their position by invoking a less desirable and false comparison/ analogy.

Anonymous said...

And you try to change subject yet again.
I said it WASN'T ironic. Why would I find it ironic? I think it's the same outdated thinking that may have once served a purpose.

Dromedary Hump said...

Change the subject.."again"? I was unaware we had a dialogue previously, much less changed the subject previously.

Anyway, sorry, I misinterpreted your "hardly find ironic" comment to imply the two arew so similar as to surpass irony.

You do seem to sound angry. If a capital punishment advocate hurt you at some time, I'm sorry. ;)

pbrennan said...

I disagree. It is axiomatic that violence begets violence. What purpose does killing serve? If there is no afterlife, and we non-theists do not believe there is, how does killing the perpetrator accomplish anything except satisfaction of a base human instinct: revenge.
While Mr. Lane is creepy in the extreme, I do not know, as certain as death is, whether he can be brought out of his psychopathic “coil” and do some good and, thus, am not sure if death resolves anything for anyone.
Best regards,

Dromedary Hump said...

Thanks, Paul.

If you could produce corroborated evidence that the application of the death sentence for convicted criminals, as sanctioned by the state, has in fact directly instigated/caused/ "begot" incremental violence, I'd gladly reconsdier my position. But I don't think you can. It certainly sounds good, but it's simply a platitude.

And yes, revenge is a natural human instinct. We seem to want to discount, or condemn that instinct. I do not.
I do not condemn the survivors of ...say... a raped, tortured, and murdered child if watching their child's abuser executed will give the family some sense of satisfaction.

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one.