Earlier today, a federal court handed down the death sentence to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 2013 Boston marathon bomber. This ruling opened up a can of questions as to the morality of the death penalty and whether not it should be abolished. A good way to answer this question would be to compare the actions of the government to that of a private individual. When it comes to stern, philosophical arguments, many of us tend to carve out moral exceptions for the state. However those exceptions are what prove the fallibility of the state and its moral ineptitude.
I begin by asking what moral difference there is between the jury that sentenced Tsarnaev to death and Jack Ruby who killed Lee Harvey Oswald in revenge for JFK’s assassination. Morally speaking, the semantics surrounding the two events are completely irrelevant, and all that matters here is the premeditated killing of another human being, which is also known as murder. Proponents of the death penalty will say killing is only murder if it is unlawful, therefore the death penalty cannot be murder since it follows the letter of the law. However, everything Hitler did was also legal, and we rightfully call his genocide of the Jews mass murder. The death penalty may not violate US law, but it GROSSLY violates natural law.
The word ‘justice’ is defined as “just behavior or treatment.” If we then go lookup the word ‘just,’ we see it is defined as “based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.” Since the death penalty is simply legalized revenge, we cannot say that it is an act of justice. Revenge is not justice. Revenge is as morally wrong as the initial crime, and if Jack Ruby cannot get away with it, then neither should a collective group of individuals who call themselves the state.
The only moral killing is one done in self-defense. You have a natural right to defend yourself from violent aggressors such as Tsarnaev and Oswald. Both Tsarnaev and Oswald were apprehended alive, and the situations ceased. Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby two days after being detained, and Tsarnaev received his death sentence more than two years after being detained. Both men were no longer threats to society, and therefore neither Jack Ruby nor the state can claim self-defense for their homicides. To say Oswald or Tsarnaev require death because of what they may do is still not an act of self-defense, but rather an initiation of force against a now tranquil person.
It is odd that the most ardent supporters of the death penalty are Christian conservatives. Despite the fact that Jesus was against human punishment and preached forgiveness, conservatives are quick to pervert Christ’s message and use the Bible as justification for the death penalty. Mahatma Gandhi, who shared similar sentiments to Christ, once famously said, “An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind.” Gandhi and Christ were right. How can a peaceful society be maintained if we seek revenge against those who have done wrong? We are no less violent ourselves if we wish for violent retribution.
As I alluded to before, the word ‘just’ is defined as “what is morally right and fair.” If a man were to initiate force against another individual, a moral reparation would be the just compensation of debts. In other words, a thief should not be locked in a cage for his crime, but rather should compensate his victim an equal value of what was stolen. When a man is locked in a government cage, no debts are repaid, and in fact the victim is also punished since they are forced to foot the bill to house the criminal. Likewise, when a man commits murder, no debts are repaid if he is himself killed. A murderer should rightfully be indebted to the estate of the victim, and therefore the family has the right to put him to work to pay off his debts and remain a productive member of society. If the murderer were to have received the death sentence, we would again be punishing ourselves because we would lose his valuable skills and talents. When individuals are punished, society is punished.
The statist system of society that punishes any behavior it deems bad actually itself promotes bad behavior. The state aggresses peaceful individuals every single day, holding them at gunpoint to pay taxes and killing them if they don’t comply. By carving out exceptions and saying that theft and murder are bad unless you work for the government, you are in turn condoning theft and murder. Therefore in killing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the state and anyone who supports their action is no different than Tsarnaev himself.
All human beings should be loved and treated well, including the most hardened criminals. We should not hate evil people, but rather hate evil ideas, for it is bad ideas that poison good people. Likewise, we should love good ideas, for they have the capacity to turn bad people good. To condemn one type of murder while condoning state-sanctioned murder is to explicitly condone and perpetuate the cycle of bad ideas without offering any real solutions that will better society.
Murderers are not bad people, but are rather mentally ill individuals that have been swayed by terrible ideas. To kill someone for being mentally ill is murder, and I believe pro-life conservatives that are fervently opposed to aborting mentally ill babies would agree. Using violence against the mentally ill is morally wrong, and we should instead rehabilitate these mentally ill folks so that they may be swayed by good ideas and learn to be productive members of society.
Rehabilitation needs to be valued more than punishment, since it is a moral alternative that actually betters society. My friend Jordan shared his sentiments on Twitter.
A prime example to look at is NFL legend Ray Lewis. Lewis was charged with two counts of murder in 2000. Lewis was never found not-guilty, but rather he was acquitted after paying punitive damages to the victims’ families. Lewis went on to provide valuable entertainment to millions of fans over the course of his hall-of-fame career by leading the Baltimore Ravens to two unlikely Super Bowl titles. Today, Lewis is a Christian highly committed to sharing the message of peace and love, and recently made headlines when he recorded a passionate video telling the Baltimore rioters that violence is not the answer.
Lewis was not punished for his possible murders and is today an extraordinarily productive member of society. His influence in the community is strongly impactful and he is making a positive difference to millions of impressionable youths every single day. To say that society would have been better off if Lewis was convicted and handed the death sentence would be asinine.
In killing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev under the death penalty, the state is no different than Jack Ruby. Yet despite having the same exact intentions, Jack Ruby was charged and convicted of murder in the first-degree, while all 12 jurors in the Tsarnaev case instead walked free. The families of the victims killed by Tsarnaev did not even want him to receive the death penalty, yet the jurors went ahead in ordering the murder anyway.
Many will continue to justify the state-sanctioned murder of Tsarnaev since his convictions run so deep that he has no remorse for his actions. However his convictions are in reality no different than those that are convinced they are just in seeking violent retribution against Tsarnaev. If you want to stop men like Tsarnaev from committing terrible acts against humanity, you must yourself stop condoning terrible crimes against mankind. The blowback theory is a real and dangerous one. We all have the capacity for change, so let it be a positive one, and let us learn to be leaders of what is morally right and just. Only then will justice have been served.
For more on this topic, I recommend researching the non-aggression principle. As well, I recommend reading this essay on punishment by libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard.