I stayed up late last night to watch the riots that might have followed the execution of Stanley Tookie Wiliams. Thank God, there were none. There were, however, plenty of stupid punks being disrespectful by mugging for the camera and calling their friends to tell them to turn on CNN or FOX. I wonder how those conversations went: “Hey, I’m on TV! Look at me! No, I don’t know why everyone here is depressed, ‘cause I’m on TV! LOOK AT ME!” I must confess to hoping the protesters would feed their placards to these laughing morons.
Anyhow, Tookie’s execution brought the capital punishment debate back into national focus. I don’t care whether you favor or oppose the death penalty. I favor it, but I acknowledge that there are many good, rational arguments against it.
However, there is one particular argument against the death penalty that strikes me as especially weak and silly– “straw-man” silly, “so-easy-to-attack-it’s-embarrassing” silly:
“Killing to punish killing is wrong.”
It looks good on a sign outside San Quentin—after all, two wrongs don’t make a right, right? For example, if you sleep with my wife, I do not show you to be wrong by sleeping with your wife. If you kill my son, I do not show you to be wrong by killing your son.
But the less that the actions in question resemble each other—in motive, in nature, or in consequence–the less valid and the less applicable the famous “two wrongs” dictum becomes. That is why this particular argument against the death penalty flops. It only works if you look at killing in the most superficial way and refuse to make distinctions between different types of killing. It only works if you think that all killing is wrong.
Let’s use a different “crime” in that sentence. “Holding someone against his will in order to punish holding someone against his will is wrong.” So, should we refrain from putting kidnappers in jail? After all, the police hold the kidnapper against his will, just like the kidnapper holds the victim against her will. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and you can’t show that wronging is wrong by wronging.
You might say, “That’s absurd! It’s a bad example, because kidnapping is obviously different from incarceration.” You might say that because you might be using your brain. You were willing to look at the difference between two forms of “holding someone against his will,” and discern that one was more wrong than the other. One may even be the right thing to do.
In the same vein, we need to be willing to look at the differences between types of killing. We acknowledge that an intruder killing you in your sleep is not the same as you killing the intruder first; that a SWAT team killing a hijacker is not the same as a hijacker killing a hostage; that killing German soldiers on D-Day was not the same as killing Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. In each case, one killing is undertaken because of the wrongness of the other killing; one is done to stop the other. But if we think and argue without discernment—lumping in premeditated murder with self-defense, lumping in genocide with a war of liberation, and condemning all of them equally as “killing”—we impair our ability to make moral or legal distinctions.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that even if you oppose the death penalty in general or simply for Tookie in particular, executing Tookie after twenty-something years of due process is not the same as Tookie murdering three motel operators and a 7-11 clerk for some cash.
Again, I’m not trying to convince anyone that the death penalty should or shouldn’t be legal. I just think that such an important debate needs to be conducted with more careful and precise thought than you would find on a bumper-sticker.