death-penalty
I’ve noticed a common theme after the capture of the Boston Bombing suspect; that is, people wishing all types of violence and death upon him — and they’re painfully creative too, or “artistically cruel,” to borrow a phrase from Dostoyevsky. And the rabid fervor; the glee and excitement, the mindlessness with which they concoct these punishments, is nothing if not horribly unsettling.

But I’m not here to condemn them — I understand the myriad passions and emotions that follow any tragedy, as well as the compulsion to exact a satisfactory vengeance upon the culprit. But this blood-lust — this incredible desire to inflict pain on another human being — can only ever betray our animalistic beginnings. It is an entirely primitive response to a given series of events; no more sophisticated than the ethical maxim of “an eye for an eye” — which, lest we forget, was dreamt up in the infancy of our species; a time before philosophical or rational ideas of justice could even be conceived. Violence begets violence — this much, to the reasonable mind, has always been known — and the world I wish to live in is one in which humanity has transcended this barbaric condition; where no one desires to answer suffering, cruelty, and hatred with more of the same. It is a fruitless and inhumane solution that only exacerbates the problem; or as Gandhi and Martin Luther King — those champions of pacifism — both once famously said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” We gain nothing from killing — and I think it’s safe to say that nobody ever has (indeed, it seems that the continual and historical application of horrific violence has done precisely nothing to stem the tide of further horrific violence).

It’s a tall order — impossible, you might say — but I have hope. Norway, 2011: Anders Breivik kills 77 children after shooting up a summer camp. Months later, in the midst of an incredibly intense and emotional trial, a mother of one of the victims is interviewed — she’s barely able to speak through her tears. Even though the punishment does not exist in Scandinavia, the reporter asks: “do you wish Breivik could get the death penalty?” She pauses. “Absolutely not,” she says, still crying. “He is still a man.”

Norway is a country that identifies as nearly 77% atheist; their government is entirely secular, and they have some of the highest living standards in the world; the highest literacy rates; the lowest poverty rates; highest income rates; lowest crime rates (specifically, incredibly low rates of repeat-offenses); highest standardized testing scores; etc… But most importantly, they are, to American eyes, unfathomably humane and caring; compassionate and empathetic. The maximum sentence you can get in Norway for any crime is 21 years; and the jails are verifiable rehabilitation centers — comfortable, clean, and working under the principle that there is no human life not worth saving. Americans scoff at the notion; rebuttals flow forth from their frothing mouths — the death-penalty as a “deterrent,” rehabilitation as “naive” and “ignorant” — but then again, only Americans would dismiss and mock a system that is empirically more successful than their own.

We must work towards this. We must push towards a future where the answer to violence is not more violence; where people don’t look so eagerly towards the suffering of others. You should never want to see someone suffer, no matter how horrific their crimes. It accomplishes nothing; and the attitude of blood-vengeance merely serves to perpetuate our society’s belief that violence is the solution to every problem. In all of the West’s foundational literature we see this belief; from the Iliad, to the Odyssey, to the blood-soaked pages of The Bible. We see it in our ancient cultural practices; from the gladiatorial arena, to slavery, to genocide. It’s time to step out of the past and into the future; to shed the remnants of barbarism that so plague us; to suppress the primitive zealotry with which we clamor for more and more violence and less for compassion, empathy, and rationality.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you have to empathize with a mass murderer, or a terrorist (though, empathy never hurts). I’m not saying you have to feel sorry for him or even care about him. But if you wish violence upon him — another living, breathing, human being — if you desire his torture and his pain and his eventual death, take pleasure in the potential destruction of life, then I fail to see how, in principle, you are any different than he is.

The humanist abhors violence in all of its forms. And in instances where violence is inevitable, or necessary in the rarest of cases — we must continue to abhor it, to despise it, to dread it; we must never want it, or encourage it, desire it or demand it. We must never resign ourselves to it; must never accept it as a permanent state of being — the natural order of humanity from which there is no escape. Change comes first from believing in the potential for change. Violence is obsolete; detrimental; destructive. There is always — always — a better, more rational, more enlightened response. And we would do well to remember it.

Advertisements