May 21, 2014

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An almost botched execution in Oklahoma has revived a debate of sorts about capital punishment in America. After the failed injection of a lethal “€œcocktail,”€ a mix of three drugs which was supposed to work quickly, Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett was left struggling in pain for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack. Governor Mary Fallin, who successfully fought the delay of the execution, expressed little remorse over the incident. Writing in a monthly column, she noted that Lockett “€œhad his day in court”€ and that the “€œpeople of Oklahoma do not have blood on their hands.”€ The White House took a different approach and declared that the procedure fell short of humane standards. President Obama has ordered the Department of Justice to review the execution protocol. That’s political speak for “€œI don”€™t feel like thinking about this now, so let’s pretend to do something for six months.”€

Several pundits have gotten into the mix, offering up their feelings on government-rendered executions. Conservative commentator Matt Lewis admitted the operation in Oklahoma may have been calamitous, but he “€œwon”€™t be losing any sleep over it.”€ To him, there are some people in the world who deserve to lose their life when they commit heinous acts. Lockett”€”who shot a 19-year-old woman and gazed on as his friends buried her alive”€”doesn”€™t deserve any pity. “€œI believe in second chances. I believe in reform and rehabilitation. But I also believe in evil,”€ Lewis averred.

“€œOur human nature is a gift with strings attached. We should always be cautious of what we think we know, and that includes the guilt of our fellow man.”€

Washington Post blogger Radley Balko disagrees. He argues that because “€œconservatives are supposed to be skeptical of government,”€ they should also be wary of giving the state the power of life and death. That’s not an insignificant argument”€”in fact, it might be the most persuasive case against capital punishment. If conservatism is really about prudence in authority, the conservative should prefer that the executioner’s axe be dulled, so it can”€™t be abused. But as Balko pointed out, for conservatives, government execution is still “€œone of the issues for which their skepticism is most negotiable.”€

So what is the proper approach to capital punishment for anyone distrusting of the political class? Much of the current debate is focused largely on whether the use of a lethal drug cocktail constitutes a “€œhumane”€ approach to execution. The nature of punishment, criminality, and government authority has escaped the realm of consideration. It’s a shame, as the basis for capital punishment rests on the idea of justice.

As it’s done to everything else, rampant progressivism has corrupted our understanding of law and order. Over a half-century ago, C.S. Lewis identified the split in philosophy regarding punishment. In his essay “€œThe Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,”€ the famed Christian apologist decried the “€œscientific”€ treatment of criminals. What Lewis called the “€œhumanitarian theory”€ is the modern notion that murderers, thieves, and rapists can all be remedied and returned to good health. Like scientists fiddling with computer models in a cramped room, the entire theory is based on the liberal, technocratic approach popularly employed by government bureaucrats.

The replacement of just punishment with rehabilitation is a leftist concoction; guilt is wiped away in favor of curing pathologies. It’s a denial of mens rea, the Latin understanding of an evil motive behind an act. Without guilt, there is no culpability. And without culpability, crimes are seen as more of an illness to be treated than a transgression to be punished.

The humanitarian theory of rehab is not what Lewis dubs the “€œold idea”€ of dealing with criminals. Before scientific engineering erroneously migrated into criminal justice, jurisprudence and sentence determination were seen as a moral problem. Wisdom and reason were required in order to obtain a just outcome. This was the job of judges, men Lewis described as scholars in the “€œscience which deals with rights and duties”€ that took guidance from the “€œLaw of Nature, and from Scripture.”€ Capital punishment was employed under this system not as a means of perfecting society, but as a sanction for wrongdoing.

To take a human life is perhaps the most appalling act one person can commit. It’s a violation of the moral verities that define us as human beings. The greatest gift bestowed on man was free will. It’s what sets us apart from other creatures. It, to use better words, is what makes us human to begin with. Dogs and cats don”€™t deliberate on the proper punishment for criminals of their species. They fight over possession of objects, only to let the quarrel end and go back to various base interests. There is no understanding of right and wrong. Actions are seemingly produced on a whim without forethought.

We, on the other hand, have the ability to conceive of justice, fairness, and guilt. This is why we have courts and rendered sentences. It’s why we have punishment and retribution for victims.


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