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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Life and death

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Monday, January 09, 2017 08:05 am

Those who oppose abortion also tend to be in favor of capital punishment, a contradiction that pro-choice advocates like to point out now and then as proof that the pro-life position is not well-thought-out and therefore not legitimate. But it is also true that those who favor abortion generally oppose the death penalty, so they have their own contradiction to deal with. And if I were feeling contentious, I might suggest that both sides are consistent. The pro-life side consistently sides with the most innocent — unborn babies and murder victims — and the pro-choice side consistently sides against them.

If someone did come along who was against both the death penalty and abortion, he would be considered an enemy by just about everybody. That was Nat Hentoff for you — he was "pro life" by the broadest possible definition and did not care whom he offended. Hentoff, the fierce civil liberties defender who died Saturday at 91, fought tirelessly and constantly against anything that involved one person getting to decide the life-and-death fate of another: abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, war. (He was that way about everything. He was a free speech absolutist who did not believe anybody should try to shut someboedy else up, period. He did not care who the messenger was or what the message was, only that the messenger should not be obstructed.)

I'm not quite there yet, but I'm finding Hentoff's position more and more — not sure if "attractive" is the right word, but at least more and more interesting. The consant push for abortion rights, our growing fondness for assisted suicide, the continuing majority support for the death penalty — add them all up, and it suggests our reverence for life isn't quite where it should be.

The obvious sticking point is capital punishment. Unlike abortion and euthanasia, it does not align power against the innocent and helpless. It would be ludicrous to equate a serial killer on death row with an unborn baby in the womb or an elderly aunt on life support. But all three involve deciding on the fitness of somebody to stay on the planet. There is a conservative argument to be made against the death penalty, which is that it invests awesome power in the state. Some of us don't trust the government to get potholes filled properly. How can we trust it with life-and-death decisions?

The death penalty is so rarely used that it clearly can't be a deterrent, so what justifies its use? Are we really seeking justice or just getting revenge because we can? When capital punishment is sought for just a handful of the criminals who qualify for it, we are conducting a bizarre, grim lottery that serves no purpose but to dole out a death now and then to the unlucky few.

But. Every time I think I'll go the final step and just say "Enough, let's ditch the death penalty," somebody comes along and commits a crime so heinous that nothing less than the death penalty seems suitable. If we take the ultimate punishment off the table, with what will be punish the ultimate crimes? 

Maybe I should start thinking of capital punishment the way some advocates think of abortion: Let's keep it legal but rare.

(It should not have to be said, but it does, that it is possible to argue against abortion or euthanasia without judging the actions of individuals who find themselves trying to make tough decisions in difficult situations, like the pregnant unmarried teenager or the spouse of someone being tormented by excrutiating pain. It is the public policy that makes abortion or euthansia an easy choice instead of a deliberate, soul-searching one that is to be resisted.)

Just noticed I haven't said anything about war yet.

OK. War is always the wrong answer.

Except when it isn't.

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