The Morality of Capital Punishment

Capital PunishmentThe recent execution of the questionably guilty Troy Davis in Georgia has sparked a lot of discussion around whether or not the death penalty is “right”.  The evidence certainly supports the case that capital punishment is not a cost effective solution, nor is it an effective deterrent.  It is applied with a decided racial bias, and its inherent irreversibility is problematic given that at least some innocent people are irrefutably being convicted.

Yet the key point would seem to be that this is not a data-driven decision for most people.  It is a moral one.  Or at least that’s how most people seem to rationalize it.

I strongly suspect that the lion’s share of people are not as morally certain about capital punishment as they claim, or at least not as unconditional in their opposition or favor of it.

To be clear, I’m not talking about personal life and death situations here.  A bad guy is holding a knife at your kid’s throat and you’ve got a clean temple shot, do you take it?  For most of us, absolutely.  But that’s a situation of imminent and immediate danger.  And I will contend the morality of that situation is quite different from situations in which a group of people not in present danger make a choice to end someone else’s life.  The question is not whether or not you would ever kill.  Rather, at its root, the question is whether or not society has the right, as a group, to take another life.  (The government being, ostensibly, just a manifestation of society or of a group of people.)

Many people do claim they are morally and unequivocally opposed to capital punishment. The assertion is that government, and by extension, society, doesn’t have the right to kill.  Yet, in a very real sense, we the people make all kinds of life and death decisions.

As a country, we wage wars.  When that happens we know that people on both sides will die.  We may not individually choose who dies, but as a group we are sending other human beings to their death.

The National Organ Transplant group makes more specific life and death decisions every day.  People specifically choose winners and losers, and the losers die.

These may seem like off-topic references, but in these and many more cases, society chooses to sacrifice some people for the greater good.  Clearly, we’re already on the slippery slope, but arguably this doesn’t specifically address death as punishment.  Perhaps we can draw a line there.

But even death as punishment gets a little fuzzy.  Consider that today the U.S. military executed Anwar al-Awlaki.  The guy was a very influential al-Qaida operative, but he was also a U.S. citizen.  Remember back in May when Seal Team 6 famously dispatched Osama bin Laden?  How were these not examples of capital punishment?  Either of those guys could have been captured, returned to the States for trial, and held for life in a maximum security facility.  Yet very few people advocated for that.

The practical matter remains that the objective of removing dangerous people is the increased safety and security of our citizens.  Sending a local serial killer to prison for life accomplishes that.  Capturing bin Laden does not.  His followers would have created additional threats for Americans were he only in jail.  We are safer if he’s dead.  Many people who are adamant the death penalty is immoral would acknowledge that.  Therefore, it seems clear that, with the exception of true pacifists, moral opposition to capital punishment has its limits.

At the other end of the spectrum, people finding the death penalty morally sound tend to find boundaries somewhat more easily.   It’s a pretty rare person that advocates capital punishment for jay-walking or shoplifting.  Even the most ardent Evangelical stops short of arguing for stoning people who picks up sticks on Saturday as commanded by the Lord in Numbers 15:32-36.  There are arguments to had with regard to how heinous the crime should be to warrant the death penalty, but basically everyone agrees there are limits to its application.

My personal position is that I do not consider myself morally opposed to capital punishment.  I do find there are rare but real situations in which it is the sentence that achieves a demonstrably greater good for society.  And I do firmly believe that society gets to make decisions in its collective best interest, and that such decisions may extend to the well-being or even the life of individuals. However, in large part, I do find the death penalty is expensive, ineffective, and impractical.  It is very nearly almost never the best solution.

That said, I also believe it’s morally reprehensible to support the death penalty out of a sense of vengeance.  And whether they admit it to themselves or not, many, if not most, advocates will find vengeance at the core of their motivation.  They may cite religious morality in terms of Old Testament support for retributive punishment, or they may talk about justice and how the person deserved to die for what they did.  Regardless, it all comes back to some form of Godly or personal vengeance.  And I can’t abide that.

While it’s important to understand your position, it’s perhaps more important to have explored the boundaries of that position as well as the underlying motivations that led you there.  So where are you?  And why?

Back that thing up!

Martha St. Bridge
It's just a bend to the right... And then a crash to the le-e-e-e-ft.

I’m scouring the paper this morning looking for police reports of yelling and other peace disturbing behavior coming from the home of a local elderly couple.  But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

You see, I live near the Erie Canal, and there are several elevated one-lane bridges that are still the main way to get from here to there.  These bridges usually have blind approaches, and so have their own protocols for who gets the right-of-way and who has to back-up and yield the bridge.

Usually this works without a hitch, but last night, one old lady and a particularly non-linear bridge approach combined for a physical comedy routine that was funny and painful at the same time.

On this particular bridge, you need to bear to the right as you approach, which the old lady did with aplomb. However, as she reached the bridge, she found me about ready to exit the bridge on her side.

As per the protocol, and without hesitation, she popped her car in reverse to yield the bridge.  She needed to back up about 10 feet while steering gently back around the curvy apron in order to let me by.  Easy-Peasy… or not.

Instead, she backed up twice that distance while keeping her wheel dead straight, meaning that she now blocked the entire street.  My son and I watched as her head flipped back and forth and the reality of her current predicament settled in.

As we all know, nothing solves a problem like doing more of what you’ve been doing, but doing it harder and faster.  So with renewed zeal, the sedan starts again down the hill… on a straight trajectory… heading toward the guardrail on my side of the road.  The car jerked slightly to the left and right as the woman tried to see over each shoulder in turn. Yet she remained oblivious to the the outcome that was obvious to me as well as the cars now queued at the bottom of the hill behind her. We all watched, helpless, as the stupidity unfolded.

It was just a Yakkity Sax soundtrack from watching a Benny Hill skit.  Traffic was frozen as the car stuttered towards its demise.  There was nothing to do but add voice-over commentary for my son. “No! Stop! Turn right! DOH!”

It didn’t take too long before the sound of metal-on-metal filled the evening air as the driver’s side of her car was molded to the unyielding guardrail.  I expected to see a look of horror and/or panic on the poor woman’s face, but the incident didn’t appear to register.  In fact, she even gassed the car a bit to make sure it was firmly seated against the rail before making her next move.

Fortunately, her next move was forward, a direction that she was more comfortable with.  She managed to pull the car back to her side of the road and come to a stop.  And trust me, no one else on the road last night was going to move until she finally came to a complete stop.

We rolled past her, looking at all the crinkly sheet metal.  I gazed at her face to see if she was okay after her ordeal, but from her expression you couldn’t tell that this wasn’t just another trip to the grocery store.  Who knows?  Maybe it was.  Maybe this was not an atypical bridge negotiation for her.  Maybe that’s why I didn’t see a police report in the paper about her yelling husband.  Maybe.

How I almost left Ellen for Catrina (and Kim is still speaking to me)

Artist's Exaggerated Rendering of the Situation

It all started one dark and stormy night back in February. My miscreant son mistook the word “RAM” on the side of my truck for a verb and turned the ass end of an innocent mini-van into an abstract sculpture.

Fast-forward seven months, and my auto insurance came up for renewal with a little surprise.  Travelers decided to assess me a 39% surcharge for the next 39 months as a result of the winter mishap.

My initial reaction was incredulity that a company I’d been a customer of since 1984 would be trying to extract a punitive charge for a relatively minor accident.  Especially since my only other claim was in 1995, and the other guy’s company paid for that one in full.  So I got right on the phone to Ellen at the agency and asked what this was about.

Ellen has always treated me well, and she was quick to assure me that the charge was not punitive.  Rather, it was an actuarial assessment of the now greater risk of another accident.  I tried to wrap my head around this.  After all, my son is not on my insurance policy.  He borrowed the truck that night, and he doesn’t borrow it all that often.  Clearly they weren’t saying his whoop-si-daisy somehow made me a riskier driver.  So either they were assessing me a 39% penalty for my questionable judgement in whom I let drive my vehicle, or they were worried about some previously unknown quantum-gravitational attraction exerted by fresh paint such that my truck was now hopelessly attractive to other cars.

Either way, I felt betrayed, jilted, and abused.  As if three decades of loyalty had no meaning.  So, I did what any man would do.  I went trolling on the Internet looking for someone new.  By the end of the weekend, I had found Catrina, a delightful woman who worked for State Farm.  She was only too happy to console me, answer my questions, and provide quotes enticing enough to lure me away from my tarnished relationship with Travelers.  The temptation of something new and cheaper was powerful.

I called Ellen the next day to tell her I couldn’t go on like this.  I wasn’t paying the surcharge, and if it didn’t come off, then we were through.  I knew in my heart, if I wrote a check, Catrina would have me.  But Ellen didn’t answer her phone.  I left her messages. A whole day went by. Not a word.

When I finally did hear from Ellen, she told me how she’d been working with others in her office, as well as the underwriter and the claims manager to get this resolved.  She told of how she accidentally yelled “yahoo!” during a call with another customer when the email finally came in indicating Travelers had seen fit to waive my surcharge.  My checkbook went all pitter-patter as Travelers was once again my least expensive option, and I do like it cheap.

But now the hard part, I had to nip my blossoming relationship with State Farm in the bud.  I contacted Catrina and told her the sordid tale of the “clerical error” Travelers made about who was driving that night. A misunderstanding that apparently caused our whole spat.  I explained that I had agreed to take them back… but to be assured, they will be sleeping on the couch for a while.  And should Travelers ever step out on me again, I will kick their butt to the curb and be giving her a call.

She said she understood, and that if Travelers ever slipped up on me again, she would be there with tissues, a bottle of wine, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, and a stack of insurance binders ready for me to sign.

The whole experience leaves me wondering… why do only friendly helpful women work for insurance agencies?  Is this some sort of cosmic yin to the DMV’s yang?  Is it some bizarre way for the universe to achieve a weird state of cordiality balance?

Hero Status at Last

I’m a hero.  And no, I don’t mean I’m a long tubular sandwich, although the fact that I’m not should put to rest once and for all the notion that you are what you eat.  I mean I’m now an actual American hero. I’m in league with the likes of John Glenn, Abraham Lincoln, and Superman.  My time has come.  I have arrived.

I know I’m a hero because I’ve been recognized by a major celebrity on national television as one of our nation’s heroes.  And it only cost me $50.

I'm a Hero

This screen capture came from last night’s Colbert Report where Stephen faithfully acknowledges those who contribute to his SuperPAC by shamelessly pandering to them.  This is also evidence that I’ve fulfilled the promise I made to my kids last month that if I was lucky enough to sell my ancient boat for a fair price that I’d send a donation to the organization dedicated to making a better tomorrow tomorrow.  Done and done.

It’s not at all clear my kids really care about this, nor is there any obvious connection between boat sales and snarky political activism.  It’s perhaps more that I’m prone to the unwarranted linking of disparate thoughts running through my brain after 11pm.  But at least I follow through on them.

The Coffee Bootstrap Problem

NoCoffee-NoWorkeeOne of the joys of working from home is that my post-alarm clock commute time is about two and a half minutes.  About two minutes of that involves stopping in the kitchen to put the coffee on before stumbling down to my office.

Sitting bleary-eyed in my office this morning I had already managed to fat-finger in a couple of passwords and comb through the email that had accumulated since the end of the day yesterday.  It was a promising and not atypical start.

Sensing the coffee should be about done, I ambled back up the stairs to the kitchen only to discover to my horror that my mug was missing from its perpetual perch next to the coffee maker.  A quick check of the cupboard and the dishwasher to be sure I hadn’t accidentally washed it… but yup, it was gone.  My mind reeled.  I began entertaining the notion that someone broke into my house overnight, passed up all the computer equipment and the big flat screen TV, and made off with my vintage Digital Equipment Corporation coffee mug.  At the moment, it was my best working theory.

It did cross my mind that I could pour a cup into one of the other dozen mugs in the cupboard… but that was just crazy talk.  Shaken, I wandered back to the office… coffeeless.  Maybe I could Google police reports to see if there had been any other mug thefts reported in the area.

As I set there pondering my plight, the heady aroma of fresh coffee wafted by my nose.  It was then that I noticed a hot cup of Joe, in my precious DEC mug, resting on the corner of the desk.  I didn’t know who stole my mug last night, but I was grateful the pangs of guilt made them bring it back, and returning it full was a thoughtful touch.

It’s almost noon now, and having finished the pot, and possessing a lucidity that earlier evaded me, I’m loathe to admit my earlier analysis of the situation may have been flawed.  So now I’m wondering how to solve the coffee bootstrap problem.  Apparently, I need to work on a new caffeine delivery system that will allow me to be conscious enough prior to having my coffee that I might function adequately enough to actually get it.  I can’t risk another morning like this one.