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Did the Capital Punishment Debate Just Take a Strange Twist? Thoughts on Criminal Justice

For as long as I can remember, a debate has raged in America about whether the state should be about the task of executing people who have committed heinous crimes. On this issue, frequently studied in criminal justice degree courses, people from varied political and religious backgrounds have found themselves aligned with other people with whom they normally have little or nothing else to agree upon. Conversely, they have found their position opposed by others who usually agree with them.

People who are aligned with so called liberals on most issues can be found defending the death penalty in large numbers even though liberals are the group usually thought to be opposed to it most adamantly. And conservatives are usually depicted as bloodthirsty knuckle draggers by elitist lefties at tony cocktail parties because they are perceived to be universally in favor of quick and sure execution of certain criminals. Personally, I know large numbers of anti-death penalty people who are usually identified as on the political right.

It's a touchy and emotional issue with political and moral ramifications. Many people avoid the issue altogether when discussing things with their friends. I don't blame them. Rational arguments can made by both sides.

There is fairly universal agreement on an important point however, so let's look at a few different scenarios to see what it is and what seems to have changed in the last few days.

Imagine the most heinous criminal you can think of. One who the authorities and the general public are truly convinced has committed a capital punishment crime. Before he is even formally accused, and before an arrest is made, much less a trial held or other due process pursued, an order is given to assassinate him. And the order is carried out. Let's further assume for the purposes of this scenario that it's a sure thing that the thug is guilty and that people are overwhelmingly joyous (or at least relieved) that he is dead.

In the America where I grew up, this situation would be unacceptable, even given that most people feel that justice has been served. In that time, and hopefully now, people knew that this was not the way we want things done in our country. The missing ingredient is due process, as guaranteed by our constitution.

It's a given that many times in our past due process has been circumvented, but usually it was with a nod and a wink that the thug was killed while being apprehended or while trying to escape. The John Dillinger case comes to mind, as one example. People will swallow that, mostly because they want to. But I think that an overtly planned and executed operation to kill such a person would be rejected by most after a rational, thoughtful and unemotional analysis.

If the fairly recently executed mass murderer John Mohammad - who shot dozens of innocent citizens with a high powered rifle from the safety of his car trunk in a "terrorist for profit" scheme - had escaped to Europe before being caught and was purposely assassinated by government agents without arrest or trial, I hope that people would have immediately recognized that their own rights were being trod upon and that the act was a political game changer. It would have made history for sure.

So now, the largely extra-constitutional government that has emerged since 9-11, and covers two administrations, has done precisely the same thing to an alleged Al Qaeda leader (but US citizen) Anwar al-Awlaki by killing him, not accidentally as part of another operation, but purposely with forethought.

You will not find me mourning the death of this low life anti-American scum. I dare say I'm glad he is gone. I further add that he certainly did not deserve the rights he owned as an American citizen. And I'm aware that by bringing up the uncomfortable questions about his death I risk the derision of many of my peers. But that  goes with the territory when speaking one's mind in a public forum.

But the questions aren't about the terrorist's rights, they are about ours, and nothing is more fundamental to our way of life than the concept of due process. So did our debate over capital punishment just take a strange twist? You can decide for yourself what you think about the issue, just as long as you do think about it.

While I don't mourn his death, I only pray that I won't be mourning the death of our rights and our republic because we didn't speak up. The debate should continue, whatever your side of it is, but this time even louder, because The inference of silence is assent.


Anonymous said...

Yours is the fourth post I have read in the last few days that have expressed more or less the same opinion. All were exceptionally well written arguments. I've only read one post that took the opinion that Awlaki was a combatant and died as a combatant. This post was equally well written and argued. This is the first of the five posts that I read and I commented in favor of the author's position. You, Grant, are giving me reason to think about my position more. I am now wondering how to differentiate between a crime against the state and an act of war against the state. I think it is going to take some time to resolve this in my mind.
Thanks for writing this post. You are correct. This is something that must be openly debated.

Grant Davies said...

It's a tough subject, but figuring it out is essential to freedom and our rights.