A community’s best defense against those bent on murder is a reliably applied penalty that coerces each of us. The two front-runners for such a penalty are death and the elusive incarceration that ends in death.
By nature there is already a death penalty against smoking, yet millions light up each day. Those who die of it do so beyond any trial or front page, but in numbers that ought to deter. Suppose that nature had chosen as her penalty—not death—but a life long, easily witnessed incarceration beginning at what would have been death’s moment. Would the stampede to take up smoking continue? I doubt it, and in doubting, prefer that we face those bent on murder–not with their imponderable mortality—but with a small, lonely cell that by their own choice may exclude the hopes of a lifetime.
Even before the crime, a murderer’s life must be rather pathetic, wanting of a desperate way out. It is the death penalty, not the endless pacing of a small cell, which offers to the shortsighted a way out. It is the death penalty that invests societal anger into a single cathartic flash and then buries the evidence of rage in a nondescript grave.
Whatever the penalty, some will ignore its warning and leave us instead with little time to 9-1-1 or run away. Then we must defend ourselves by killing; that has been a basic right, since before history itself. However, unlike an execution, we would neither premeditate the act, nor waste the moment justifying it as a penalty. We would simply do it and leave the premeditating and penalizing to those caught up in these needs, to the murderers themselves.
Some life sentences last less than a dozen years; some began so long ago that their bars go unnoticed; and some are truly lifelong, beginning with the murder of the beloved. By that act the bereaved are barred from a presence that had been part of their life’s joy, from awakenings that had once been to a more secure day.
- The executed stop being a physical threat to both inmates and public, but they leave a death-savvy mystique that spawns havoc in the gullible, recruiting them into their own appointment.
- Death is dreaded as either presumed pain or nothingness. To deter in any numbers, humane execution needs from the public that same scrutiny given it by those imprisoned at its feet for months, but late in grasping what may have deterred them. Even if that scrutiny were possible, applied on the outside may actually be producing most murderers.
- Here in Massachusetts, life imprisonment is so broadly interpreted as to reduce much of what I have written to an absurdity. I stand by all of this only when life sentences have at least 18 mandatory years before murderers even go up for parole.
The moral path neither deludes us about what executions and foreshortened, life sentences now offer, nor terrifies us with that long shot of being fatally misunderstood by a jury. It punishes this vile disregard for others: not with a penalty that disappears into itself, but with a self that reappears as instrument of its own penalty or release.