It’s often said, “Let the punishment fit the crime.” We find in Genesis 9:6 the command, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” Yet as a society, we do not honor this ancient wisdom. We laugh at it, treat it with scorn. We haughtily quote the empty platitude that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” and disparage as barbaric what we know in our bones to be true: some among us deserve to be punished, there are some among them who deserve to die, and it is our duty as a society, through our legal institutions, to execute them.
This past week, Dylann Roof, a racist mass murderer who shot and killed nine black men and women at a church in Charleston, was sentenced to death on account of thirty-three federal charges and thirteen South Carolina state charges. There are few who sympathize with him, but there are some who only begrudgingly recognize this as justice. The apprehension with which these “humanitarians” have tempered their feeling of indignation (in addition to being wildly out of character) should strike any upstanding citizen with disgust.
They say that nobody deserves to die (an odd sentiment, considering we all will), or that the justice system cannot be entrusted with the right to kill (yet grant its right to every other form of punishment), or that it gives the criminal the martyrdom he wants (supposing that the administration of justice should depend on the perverse inclinations of a murderer). Those who feel ashamed that their hearts bleed for every murderer, rapist, and traitor will puff out their chests and excuse their moral weakness with the absurd claim that prison is “a fate worse than death” (it isn’t, nor would that be a good reason to imprison rather than execute – we punish the criminal as he deserves, not more).
Whatever one thinks of the danger of executing an innocent, that these moral arguments are offered against capital punishment (and widely accepted by the intelligentsia) is a disgrace. It reflects an overly self-critical tendency in our republic and a corrosive skepticism about the law. We are a society afraid to be just, scared of its own shadow, so cynical and apologetic that we cower even from shedding the blood of Dylann Roof.
Perhaps what is missing is a thorough understanding of the grounds for the justification of the death penalty, or of punishment more broadly. After all, you will not find any “correctional facility” (the very name – “correction” – betrays a kind of paternalism that ought to disturb liberals) name “punishment” as its stated purpose. Instead, the prevailing goals of justice (using the word loosely for the current American penal system) concern rehabilitation, disablement, and deterrence. Is not retribution just another form of vengeance – a passionate infliction of harm for a private wrong?
The twin principles of a liberal society are liberty and equality, unified in the equal right of every citizen to self-determination. Every citizen is formally free, his own master, whose only constraint is the right of all others to that same freedom. To secure this rule of right, citizens must be united under the rule of a public law which secures as peremptory and determinate the rights of every citizen. In a lawful condition, no citizen’s rightful freedom is subject to the arbitrary will of another, but each is secured from this predation through the law, which is the public exercise of coercion by the lawful representative of the people. This is the principle of equality before the law: whatever other differences might obtain between citizens (variation of race, creed, sex, color, ability, or wealth), each is equal in his dignity and, by extension, in his rightful status.
Therefore, a civil commonwealth recognizes no legal privilege. No citizen is entitled to infringe upon the right of another; to permit some to violate the rights of others would be to authorize a legal inequality between the criminal and the victim, to entitle the former to invade the liberty of the latter. If we are equal before the law, then the law must hold us equally to account: when I subject another to my coercive will, I must be punished in proportion through the public exercise of coercion. It is no accident that we speak of the scales of justice, since equality serves as the fundamental principle of criminal law.
We do not punish to deter, nor to rehabilitate, nor to disable. That would be to use a person as a mere means to an end – to harm in order to send a message, for instance -, whereas it is the inviolable dignity of every individual which is the basis of the law. Moreover, it is the guilt of the criminal (a fact of the past) which justifies punishment, not some aim to be secured in the future. Punishment is not a prerogative to be used with discretion. It is a categorical imperative that holds citizens in a condition of legal equality. To pardon is to deny the absolute worth of humanity. To exercise mercy by commutation is to set a price on that worth. Were one murderer to escape the hangman, the rule of law would be for naught.
Dylann Roof deserves to be executed, sooner rather than later. We shouldn’t be ashamed to say that with confidence. Capital punishment is our shared republican sacrament, the last rite of the citizen – it is a good and sacred thing that a criminal be punished according to his deeds. As the philosopher Diogenes Laërtius said, the wise “are not prone to pity and forgive no one. For they do not relax the penalties which the law fixes as relevant [nor] substitute niceness for punishment.” (7.123 Ethics) We needn’t punish from hate nor feel sympathy for the condemned. We punish for no other reason than because the criminal deserves to be punished and because it is our duty to give them what they deserve.