For quite some time, I’ve fancied myself an opponent of the death penalty. From a spiritual and psychological perspective, I think is mostly due to the fact that the death penalty, like the prison system, seemed to me to exist primarily to punish the lower classes, people without means. And that state of affairs infuriates the living hell out of me. However, the concept of “an eye for an eye” has also seemed to rub me the wrong way for another reason. “‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ makes the whole world blind and toothless,” as the saying goes. There are quite remarkable efforts currently underway to focus on restorative justice rather than merely punitive (think “punishment”) – and “an eye for an eye” is mostly implemented as punitive justice. There are some good Mennonite folk I know who seek to connect victims and perpetrators to bring about some form of reconciliation, with the goal of healing and restoration for both sides. Not only is the death penalty applied to one class of folks and not the other, but it doesn’t seem to be the most effective and sustainable way to go about doing justice.
When I taught creative writing, a few years back, at the county jail in Kosciusko County, Indiana, I noticed that a lot of the inmates were poor. This quickly led me to a fairly obvious conclusion: Either the poor commit all the crimes, or the system is rigged in favor of those with money. You can probably guess which conclusion makes more sense to me. Let’s be honest for just a few moments: When we talk about the death penalty, we are, for the most part, talking about whether or not to kill poor people. When the wealthy commit crimes, there are a separate set of rules. What if there weren’t?
For a moment, though, let’s try an interesting thought experiment. What if “an eye for an eye” were actually fairly administered in our culture, across classes? What if it were, in fact, reserved for those responsible for unjust killing, for those whose actions led to innocent deaths. Corporate executives, for example, and others whose use of foreign sweatshops for ungodly low wages results in factory abuses and unsafe conditions that lead to hundreds of death from fires. Should they be held responsible for these deaths? And for the suffering they cause? What about executives at Union Carbide, a multinational corporation based in the U.S., the company a few years back whose negligence caused a chemical leak that killed thousands and devastated the lives of thousands more in Nepal. An eye for an eye? Also consider oil executives who oversea companies that spill oil into the oceans, destroying life in the seas. What about arms dealers? What about weapons manufacturers, who produce the weapons that arms dealers sell to Third World nations – they are literally profiting from the deaths of millions. Should we hold Presidents of the United States culpable for propping up dictators who commit genocide on their peoples? Or Presidents who send arms to such dictators? What about automobile companies whose failure to build safe cars results in deaths and injuries? An eye for an eye?
What if the rules were the same for everyone? I would be willing to give capital punishment more thought. After all, defenders of the death penalty assert that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime. If you make the punishment intense enough, they say, people will think twice before committing gross atrocities. To me, however, the worst atrocities are not when one person kills another person. Such crimes are somehow understandable, in many cases, very human, actually, especially in the case of retribution for harm done to one’s family, etc. However, when one person is the brains behind killing thousands and thousands of people, or inflicting intense day-to-day suffering (as in the case of sweatshops), or in devastating land for future generations, or for starting pointless wars – this seems far worse to me. It also seems true that if the death penalty were applied to politicians or to men in suits who run multinational corporations, they might be a bit less reckless and irresponsible in their pursuit of the Almighty dollar. It’s a matter of accountability, isn’t it?
Accountability is something that the powers-that-be lack in this enlightened modern age. In the old barbaric days, if a king was a bad king, someone might overthrow him and cut off his head. Accountability. These days, politicians and executives who create suffering and death get to look forward to an early retirement with full benefits. If they had to trade in their lives when they take the lives of others, might they think twice? An eye for an eye?