Punishment with a capital maybe
Even when death is deserved, do we have a right to take a life?
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
Last week I finished Netflix’s “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted BundyTapes,” the haunting docuseries that details the life, manhunt, trial, and execution of one of history’s most infamous serial killers. Toward the end of the fourth and final episode, a jubilant crowd, some of whom held signs reading “Roses are red, violets are blue. Good morning Ted, We’re gonna KILL YOU!” and “Burn Bundy Burn!” gathered outside the Florida prison where he was being held. Upon learning that Bundy, after 2,000 volts had coursed through his body, was finally gone, the assembled masses erupted in cheers.
Watching this scene, more than 30 years later from my living room, I was made uncomfortable by the wild celebration, even one set off by the death of such an evil human being — if he could be called human — one who had killed upward of 30 women, raped many of them (sometimes post-mortem), and for whom the electric chair was a far-too-peaceful end.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not against capital punishment. But I’m not in favor of it, either. All my life I’ve struggled with this issue, never able to reconcile my desire for justice with my doubts that we have a right to dole it out ourselves. Ask me to weigh in on whether the death penalty should be legal and all you’ll get is a feeble, “I just don’t know.”
My discomfort is not based on the possibility of wrongful convictions or a subjective measuring stick about which crimes warrant death. Although those concerns are relevant, at least for the purposes of this discussion, such added variables muddy the waters as we wade in. Rather, I get stuck on the concept of an eye for an eye — whether people can make a decision that, in a perfect world, would fall within the exclusive domain of God.
We humans are an amazing bunch. Our technological advances come so fast and furious that it’s difficult to get excited by the latest state-of-the-art gadget when we know it will soon be outdated, if not obsolete. Scientists continue to make serious progress toward finding cures for life-threatening diseases, and Richard Branson just struck a deal to offer multi-day commercial trips to space for anyone willing to pay the exorbitant price tag.
But for all our progress, what is dead stays dead, and something that was never alive will never be. Life is the most precious commodity in existence, and for humans to decide when it’s right to take it away … well, that’s about as close as we can come to playing God.
It’s for this reason that, much to my wife’s chagrin, I won’t kill bugs. How can I know if an insect’s divine purpose, whatever it is, has already been fulfilled? Remember that a spider once saved the life of David by spinning a web around the entrance to a cave, convincing the bloodthirsty King Saul that his would-be usurper could not be hiding inside.
Then again, David is the wrong name to drop for the sake of a paean to the sanctity of life. In one of his first acts as king, he executed a man for claiming he acceded to the wishes of a mortally wounded Saul and ended the dying king’s suffering. During David’s reign he also sent the husband of his lover, Batsheba, to certain death in battle, and in his final days he made his son, Solomon, vow to have two others who had wronged him die by the sword.
Maimonides, the medieval Jewish scholar, is permissive with regard to a king’s almost-absolute authority in putting people to death, but our sages’ overall opinions on capital punishment are more mixed. In theory it is allowed in Jewish law — via stoning, fire, beheading, and strangulation — but the textual and historical indications are that it occurred very, very infrequently. That’s not all that surprising given the incredibly specific conditions for carrying out a death sentence, including the crime being seen by not less than two witnesses and the defendant having been warned in advance that it was a capital offense. Even in the unlikely event that these conditions were met, the beit din, Jewish court, still tried to find some wiggle room to commute such sentences. In fact, a mishnah in Tractate Makkot suggests that a beit din that ordered a single execution in 70 years was considered murderous.
Israeli law would seem to hew closely to that mishnah, as the state has only carried out two executions in its 76 years. One, Meir Tobiansky, an Israeli soldier, was killed by firing squad for committing treason during the War of Independence; he was later exonerated. The other, Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, may his name be erased, was tried and hanged in 1962. Though the death penalty is legal in Israel, it requires unanimous consent of a panel of three judges, which has never happened. In the last year the Knesset advanced a bill that would allow a simple majority to rule in favor of capital punishment for terrorists, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supports the bill, said the possibility of it becoming law is “not promising.”
And is there a better example of Israel’s sanctification of life than Yigal Amir, 49, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, being condemned to life in prison rather than death by hanging?
In the Bundy documentary, just before his execution, the FBI sent special agent Bill Hagmaier to interview the sociopath to better understand the mind of a serial killer and prevent future murders. In their first conversation, the agent said that Bundy asked if he would be willing to kill him, to which Hagmaier responded, “I wouldn’t take pleasure in it, but if it was my job to pull the switch, yeah, you’re toast.”
Which is to say that in extremely rare circumstances, capital punishment is appropriate and necessary, but no matter how deserving the individual is of death, we should mourn the waste of a life that, instead of improving the world, left it demonstrably worse.
Perhaps that’s where I stand on the issue. Perhaps not.
Contact Gabe Kahn via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or