Positive Atheism Forum:
 Notes on the Death Penalty
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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine"
To: "Positive Atheism List"
Sent: June 12, 2001 11:35 PM
Subject: May Issue; Update, Call for Volunteers; Death Penalty

POSITIVE ATHEISM
TO BE REMOVED, SIMPLY REPLY AND ASK

[snip]

By far the most popular portions of the PAM website are:
    The Letters Section;
       http://www.positiveatheism.org/toclettr.htm
    Positive Atheism's Big List of Quotations;
       http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/qframe.htm
    Positive Atheism's Big Scary List of George W. Bush Quotations;
       http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/bushframe.htm
a few individual pieces such as:
    Mark Twain's "Letters From The Earth";
       http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/twainlfe.htm
the Voltaire Biographies by:
    Clarence Darrow
       http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/darrow5.htm
and
    Joseph Lewis;
       http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/lewis/lewvolt.htm
    Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not A Christian";
       http://positiveatheism.org/hist/russell0.htm
    our vast collection of biographical sketches;
       http://positiveatheism.org/tochbio.htm
    the Disney Subliminals exposé;
       http://positiveatheism.org/writ/disneysmut.htm
and, of course,
    Matt's bit about Kraft Satanic Macaroni & Cheese Dinners.
       http://positiveatheism.org/mail/eml9046.htm

Every once in a while, the main index to the Letters section gets too big. So I have to set aside a half a day or so to organize it. I did this today, and hope you like it.

Within a week or so, we will have posted our 1,000th Letters file. This is not 1,000 letters, but 1,000 different files, each of which may contain up to a few dozen letters, depending on the thread.

[snip]

5. Thoughts On The Death Penalty

I hope I'm not the only one who cringed as I watched my fellow-Americans on television gloating over the death of Timothy McVeigh. I admit, if killing a culprit were an appropriate response to committing a heinous crime, and if anybody in recent years deserved it, it was this man.

However, I do not think killing a criminal is an appropriate response. Our nation, like all nations and groups of people, tells her citizens that killing is wrong, and we all exact a penalty for taking the life of another person (except under certain circumstances, such as self-protection or the immediate protection of the lives of others). However, to respond by putting the culprit to death is to nullify, in my opinion, our statement to our citizens that killing is wrong. If we kill, we are, in effect, saying that killing is not really wrong.

As tempting as it is to want to lash out in retribution against someone who took the lives of our friends and loved ones, when we do this we lower ourselves to his level. Those who gloated and cheered the death of Timothy McVeigh were not, in my opinion, morally superior to McVeigh himself (in this one respect). McVeigh, in committing his crime, was lashing out in retaliation against what he saw as his country having committed a great crime in its aggression against the Branch Davidian compound and other anti-American groups and individuals.

Even though McVeigh was found guilty and admitted to the crime, there is still the small possibility that he could have taken the fall -- either for someone else or to go down in history as a martyr in the eyes of some. Should we happen to have been wrong, there is no redress. Although McVeigh is probably the most extreme case one could imagine (in that he wanted to die), many Americans and others are put to death against their wishes -- and later turn out to have been innocent.

Also, no matter what you think of McVeigh, I agree with those who think he nonetheless has something to say -- something that some of us might want to consider. Now we cannot get that information because it all went to sleep forever as that first rush of Sodium Pentothal coursed through his bloodstream.

Finally, we have done a great injustice to ourselves and the future victims of similar crimes simply because we will never find out if there was something medically wrong with Timothy's nervous system that made him act the way he did. Many say that the bell-tower sniper in Texas in the 1960s had a brain tumor the size of a hen's egg. This is still being disputed. But now, no psychologists can question Timothy McVeigh; no pathologist can examine the chemical profile of his blood stream; no neurologist can run a scan of the structure and function of his brain. We cannot get from Timothy McVeigh what he most truly owes to the people: information that might eventually help us prevent a future Timothy McVeigh from heaping further destruction upon our lives.

The victims of the Oklahoma City tragedy can never come back; the survivors will never be the same. There is nothing we can do for them. All we could do (but can't, now) was to try to reduce the chances of this happening again.

Others, I'm sure, have remarkably powerful arguments in favor of the death penalty, to be sure. This is not an issue that relates to atheism in any way except that those who smugly announced on television that "I hope he burns in Hell" are wrong. No. He's not in Hell. He's simply not. This is the fate that we all await regardless of what crimes we've committed or accomplishments we've made during our lives.

I do not believe in punishment for punishment's sake. Rather, I think that the proper response to crime is isolation from society, recompense when possible and appropriate, and study to see if we can gain some insight toward reducing crime in the future. What Timothy McVeigh owed us was to be separated from society forever. What Timothy McVeigh owed us (though this would not be possible in his case, but it is in some), would have been to help pay the financial costs of his deed. And what Timothy McVeigh really owed us was the use of his body for the purpose of studying him to see if there is something we can learn -- some clue -- that might help us prevent this from happening again. "The People Of The United States Of America" are, in this respect and to this extent, partially to blame for future tragedies that might have been prevented had we been able to discover what made Timothy McVeigh tick.

Although this is a side-issue, I will post this in the Forum section and make a link for commentary. This is what's been weighing most heavily on me since I watched the absurd post-execution coverage and commentary yesterday, while eating lunch at Foti's Greek Deli on East Burnside. And, at this point, all we have left is to talk about it. Your comments are welcome: I have my opinion (for what it's worth), but I really have no answers.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
    people with no reason to believe
P.O. Box 16811
Portland, OR 97292
http://www.PositiveAtheism.org/
editor@PositiveAtheism.org

"My conclusion is that there is no reason to
    believe any of the dogmas of traditional
    theology and, further, that there is no
    reason to wish that they were true. Man,
    in so far as he is not subject to natural
    forces, is free to work out his own destiny.
    The responsibility is his, and so is the
    opportunity."
       -- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970),
          "Is There a God?" (1952)

"The legitimate powers of government extend
    to such acts only as are injurious to others."
       -- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
          "Statute for Religious Freedom"

 

From:
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: The Death penalty.
Date: June 14, 2001 2:54 PM

I am sort of on the fence about this one, which will probably seem strange considering my leftist leanings. I often get into this debate with friends and family and I always play devil's advocate to whatever the predominate notion (for or against) happens to be when I manage to stumble into the discussion.

The case for the death penalty , as I see it:

The rationalist in me knows that human beings are animals. We are separated from other fauna only by our ability to think abstractly and profoundly about life and our place in the universe. We have brains capable of contemplation of things far greater in scope than even our nearest mammalian relatives. We are able not only to distinguish self from not self, but to speculate and reflect about those "non-self " others we share our existence with. We also have opposable thumbs and fine manipulators ideally suited for the fashioning and manipulation of tools which has allowed us to realize many of our lofty visions for a better world. But the fact is we have no more "special place" in the universe than chimpanzees or house cats. A meteor the size of a small state or province will wipe us out along with our pets.

Now if a certain Doberman pinscher in my neighborhood starts attacking children without provocation we rightly put the animal down. We weigh the life of the dog (who may be rabid or the product of abusive owners or whatever) against the lives of the children and adults of the neighborhood and we determine it is just not practical to try and "rehabilitate" the dog (who may have already caused a great deal of grief) as the animal is not only not a beneficial neighbor-hound but is in fact a burden or hindrance to the neighborhood and a constant reminder of the children who were viciously mutilated or killed. The parents of said children cannot so much as stroll by the house where the dog lives without feelings of extreme bitterness and grief welling up.

So why can't we be this practical in our dealings with humans? I mean, what if someone is as badly wired as Ted Bundy or as demonstrably evil as Timothy McVeigh? I know if I were on death row about to be executed I would feel quite differently (hell ... I might even start praying out of sheer panic) but we do not argue against the death panalty because of the emorional suffering a death row inmate may be going through when the time comes (or at least I have not encountered this argument much) but rather from the perspective that "all life is special" (or "precious," which I find sort of strange coming from rationalists in a way).

Don't get me wrong: like I said I am on the fence and have not fully made up my mind on the issue and I will no doubt learn something new if I am so fortunate as to get a rebuttle to this rant, something which may change my whole outlook.

The case against the death penalty:

In short I would ask: "Who do we kill?" I mean, if in fact we are to some degree or the other products or our environment (and I believe we are) then do we put McVeigh to death or all the people who twisted his mind with misinformation? Do we track down every drill sergeant who used the word "nigger" or "spic" and kill them for their part in creating Tim McVeigh? Do we kill Ted Bundy's mother if it turns out she was domineering, sexually represive, and emotionally abusive (and I'm not saying she was, just speculating)?

The other arguments I have against the death penalty you (Cliff) have already expressed and I won't reiterate them here.

Any response would be appreciated.

Tony C.

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From: "Michael Morrison"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: May Issue; Update, Call for Volunteers; Death Penalty
Date: June 13, 2001 5:45 PM

Cliff,

You wrote brilliantly on the killing of Timothy McVeigh.

I was quite impressed when Jesse Ventura said the same thing I've been saying for so many years about the death penalty: There is always the chance of killing an innocent person, and we should be very cautious about giving government permission to kill people.

There is no justification for cold-blooded murder, which is exactly what execution is.

Many thanks,

Michael Morrison

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Cliff replies:

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From: "LC Whittle"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Timothy McVeigh
Date: June 13, 2001 4:28 PM

On 13 Jun 01, at 17:59, Positive Atheism Magazine wrote:

How true.

I am becoming to believe that the death penalty is the easy way out, especially for people who commit truly heinous crimes, like McVeigh. I won't dignify him with a 'mister'.

I think a more fitting punishment for these kinds of criminals is life in prison with no possibility of parole. Death is not the ultimate punishment. Loss of freedom is. Why is this so hard for death-penalty proponents to grasp?

A big push for this view is how our current justice system works. The endless appeals process in death sentence cases cost more, in the long run, than imprisoning a ruthless, unrepentant, unremorseful (is this a word, Cliff? I'm not sure) sociopath for the length of his natural life.

I think McVeigh should have been forced to live, in prison, for the rest of his sorry-ass life. Suicide by government was the easy way out for him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
LC
"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
-- Thomas Edison

http://www.whittlink.org/LCsWebPages/page1a.htm

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Cliff replies:

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From: "David Eller"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Death Penalty
Date: June 13, 2001 1:27 PM

Cliff,

I enjoyed reading your principled plea against capital punishment.

However, this is one place where I disagree with the liberals who tend to populate groups like ours. Hopefully, my position is as principled as yours. I'm sure you have heard every conceivable defense of the capital punishment, and please be clear that I am for a very restricted application of it only in the most heinous and indisputable of cases.

At any rate, I think we must introduce two concepts -- social sanction and justice. There is, although you do not seem to agree, a distinction between socially-sanctioned acts and non-socially-sanctioned acts, even when practically speaking the acts are exactly the same.

For example, consensual sex is socially-sanctioned and therefore acceptable, while the identical acts are rape when they are not socially sanctioned. In other words, we cannot judge an act simply on its surface details.

Murder of the sort committed by McVeigh or any other common criminal is not socially sanctioned, while execution -- like war, self-defense, and other similar cases -- is socially sanctioned. Notwithstanding that nobody put a bomb in McVeigh's cell and killed him and 100 other innocent people along with him, society not only has the right to sanction execution of criminals but strains to do so in the most humane way possible. No one in his right mind is suggesting "an eye for an eye," and no condemned man is forced to bear unnecessary pain or grief.

The other argument in favor of capital punishment is the argument from justice. The punishment, to be just, must fit the crime. If a man who commits an ordinary murder -- or a number of ordinary murders -- receives a life sentence, then the punishment for a man who commits an outrageous murder or number of outrageous murders must receive a harsher sentence. To do otherwise would be unjust not only to the latter but also to the former, who pays a like penalty for an unlike crime.

I am not saying that I salivate over the death of criminals, but neither do I shed a tear over it. I think it is a very sobering response, one which I would nonetheless be able to perform myself without much remorse. However, the rabidity of the masses is not an argument against such justice; there may be those who would take perverse pleasure out of a life sentence, or a one-year sentence for that matter.

A more serious issue is the application of the penalty. I know that certain constituencies tend to suffer the penalty more than others, and I know that there is always a danger of executing an innocent man. That is why we must be restrained and circumspect about applying it. Only perpetrators of horrific crimes, where there is no doubt of guilt, should be executed; all others should be imprisoned for life, certainly. But the exceptions and abuses do not invalidate the principle.

Your arguments about learning from people like McVeigh -- whether it is their brain physiology or their information and perspectives on crimes -- are interesting but unconvincing. If we found out that he had a brain tumor the size of a cabbage, what would we do with that information? It would make him no less guilty, and it would not help us predict or prevent such crimes in the future (unless you care to CAT-Scan every American, then segregate those with brain abnormalities). And I'm sure he has more details about the crime and his motivation, but that too is little reason to prolong his life. We know what we need to know, and killers could string us along indefinitely by spooning out dabs of information or making false promises of information. Americans already love to wallow in their own sorrow, and keeping a monster alive to prod him or to extract more heart-wrenching specifics seems more uncivilized to me than just killing him.

As you rightly indicate, there is a danger that he will become a martyr through his death. I am almost certain he will. But we cannot let such threats deter us from the righteous (without religious connotations!) application of justice. There is the equal chance that his life would serve as a constant focal point for grievances of violent whackos. Once a man commits his kind of act, for his kind of reasons, there is no breaking the cycle of grievance and counter-grievance.

In conclusion, I am not in favor of "punishment for punishment's sake" either, but the execution of Timothy McVeigh was not merely for execution's sake. It was for the sake of justice and appropriate punishment. He took everything he could take from his victims, and he gave everything he could give to the justice system. I'm sure my case has not swayed you from your convictions, but at least know there are those of us who are not bloodthirsty idiots who think that capital punishment, wisely applied, neither unfairly victimizes the guilty nor demeans society.

A just society uses its powers -- all of its powers -- confidently yet carefully.

--
David Eller

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From: "Christian Ambrose"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: May Issue; Update, Call for Volunteers; Death Penalty
Date: June 13, 2001 9:35 AM

I was very upset about McVeigh's death and couldn't believe that some people were getting to see him die for "closure." Do the families and friends of the victims really think this will somehow make everything better for them? Was it too much to ask for them to remember their loved ones' best times and some of their more quirky habits? I personally had a friend die in a shooting accident. I could get mad and try to see retribution but instead I remember some of the good times that I've had with him.

I thought that McVeigh should not have been put to death for two reasons. The first reason is that the FBI admitted to withholding some evidence; now we will never know anything about that. My first thought was that maybe there was something that would show him innocent. If so, even on a slim chance, I still think he had rights to a second trial. I believed that since he was human, he was entitled to the same rights that the rest of us have. I realize that McVeigh was quite adamant about his guilt, making it unquestionable to some. I don't know McVeigh and believe in giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. I also believe that he is now a martyr to some of these fanatic militia-type groups which will only make their cause spread like wildfire. He wanted to be a martyr and that should have been denied him; he should have had to spend the rest of his life thinking about the fact that by his admission he killed all those innocent people and realize that there was a better and saner way to get whatever message he had across.

I am very divided on the death penalty so I really would not be a good source of opinions on that at this time.

=====

Ciao,

Christian L. Ambrose

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From: "Martin Horton"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: June 13, 2001 7:09 AM
Subject: Re: May Issue; Update, Call for Volunteers; Death Penalty

Coming through loud and clear.

I was slightly worred by your subject heading: Call for Volunteers; Death Penalty

I know the U.S. is running out of people to execute, but is it neccessary to go abroad!? ;)

Martin Horton.

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Cliff replies:

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