Two weekends ago, James Holmes was sentenced (one of the newscasters in that coverage, by the way – Ana Cabrera – was my babysitter when I was young and we’ve known her family for years!) to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murdering 12 people and injuring 70 others in an attack during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight in a Colorado movie theater, July 2012. He plead not guilty by reason of insanity (a questionable and atavistic plea in itself, but that’s for a different post), was convicted of all 165 counts against him and was spared the death penalty (pretty much only because the jury could not come to a unanimous decision, which is required to pass a death sentence, and that was only because there was a single holdout against deciding such a fate). People were “shocked” that this lone juror held this view, “disappointed” that she basically blocked justice because of it.
Country-wide, there’s a lot of people criticizing the courts for being “too lenient” on Holmes, for being manipulated by the “pity party” Holmes’ defense threw and for failing to carry out “justice.” So, despite Connecticut’s recent ruling to ban the death penalty, I have to conclude that our definition of “justice” in this culture is retaliatory, eye-for-an-eye punishment. What’s really strange is that, actually, the whole eye-for-an-eye thing is, in its original context, actually about mitigating violence. “Eye for an eye” shows up three places in Christian Scripture: Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. Exodus 21 is essentially a list of if-then scenarios, and the severity of punishment is proportional to the seriousness of the injury. In other words, you can’t go demanding whatever you want from a perpetrator if all he did was break your fence (as opposed to, say, murder someone). But even if he did murder someone, the punishment has got to match the crime. Leviticus 24:20 is part of what is presented as direct instruction from God. Yes, God says that anyone who takes the life of another human being is to be put to death. God also says that whoever kills an animal must make restitution and you don’t see anyone bloodthirsty over that in today’s culture. Two other important points about this passage: First, before passing the death sentence, those involved waited for the Lord’s will to be revealed. Second, it was the community – not the State – that performed the execution. More on this in a minute. Deut. 19 is about “purging the evil from among you” and it concerns false testimony. “Whatever the false witness wanted done to the accused, do to the false witness instead,” God commands, so that people will be afraid out of committing the same evil, that is, false testimony.
If you look at the entirety of the context (i.e., the Old Testament), people were wiping out entire families because one member stole cattle from someone else. I want to be careful of cultural and historical chauvinism here, and I’m not saying that God commanding violence makes violence acceptable. There’s a lot of confusing stuff about God commanding violence in a way that seems similar to our relentlessly retaliatory culture and now is not the time for such a discussion. But, it seems to me, that the eye-for-an-eye decree was not an encouragement or permission to strike back but an attempt to curb the gratuitously lethal responses to “petty” or lesser crimes.
Of course, James Holmes did take a life. He, in fact, took twelve. But the whole point of the eye-for-an-eye clause was not to encourage murder. The way we use this eye-for-an-eye or life-for-a-life logic now is far from its intended purpose – that is, that of restraint. We seem to be using it as permission to hit back when we’ve been struck. We want those who have hurt us to get hurt back, which may be common and understandable as an emotional response, but it’s not justice. We conflate wishing someone to be hurt with true justice all the time, but I’m not clear on how the death penalty causes more suffering for the convict than leaving him to languish in prison for the rest of his days. So even if the whole thing is about inflicting maximum suffering as opposed to actual, real justice, it seems to me that the death penalty is the wrong choice. Sure, he may not get to live the rest of his life anymore, but by death’s definition, he will not be conscious of missing out on anything; whereas in prison, he will be forced to confront the reality of his existence every single second.
Clearly, I’m against the death penalty, on principle and in practice. You can try to tell me that I maybe wouldn’t be if someone murdered one of my loved ones and I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have some feelings of vengeance or rage. But wishing death for another person not only wouldn’t bring my loved one back but also doesn’t accomplish anything except the end of the life of another human being. At the hands of the State. What people are doing when they call for the death penalty (done “humanely” – if there is such a thing – or not) is not demanding justice. They are, in fact, advocating for the power to decree life and death to be held in the ever-invasive, always searching whims of the government in the name of morality. Even if the track record of executing innocents weren’t so abysmal (4% of those executed are innocent – more than double the amount that are exonerated), I can’t see any good coming from giving The State not only that much power, but, essentially, ultimate power. We’ve all read 1984, right? It was a warning, not an instruction manual.
And, just as eye for an eye is codified in the Old Testament, so is not shedding innocent blood. Speaking of bad track records, the logic of the “eye-for-an-eye” argument so many call “justice” would demand that the executioners who took the lives of all those innocent people would then have to be tracked down and themselves executed, and, given the number of innocents executed by the State, there’s no guarantee there won’t be more mistakes when life-for-lifing the executioners of those innocent people. So the vicious spiral of violence eye for an eye was originally trying to subvert continues. I dislike it when people detail a problem and then either leave no solution or a suggest vague one, like, “wake up,” “fight injustice” or “work for change,” so part two of this post will be some thoughts on better ways to act justly even in the face of horrific crimes.