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Ed. note: Alan Keyes has been writing for WorldNetDaily since before
he announced his run for the presidency. We are proud to have him as our
regular columnist, but his appearance here does not constitute an
endorsement of his candidacy. WorldNetDaily also prints periodic columns by
Libertarian Harry Browne, and we welcome column submissions by presidential
candidates of any other party.

By Alan Keyes

© 2000, WorldNetDaily.com


I am frequently confronted with what apparently strikes some people as a
very difficult question: How I can reconcile my pro-life position with my
strong support of the death penalty? But answering this question is actually
quite easy. There is no contradiction — nor even any tension — between
support for the death penalty and opposition to abortion. Not, that is,
unless we see no moral difference between the innocent and the guilty.

Of course, such a moral difference is clear in Scripture, and has been
clear throughout the moral history of humankind. That is why it has been
considered particularly abominable when, as can happen in wartime, the
innocent life of babes, and defenseless women and children, is assaulted.
The destruction of innocent human beings is what characterizes the most
heinous brutality in war. Killing of the innocent announces precisely the
undoing of all decent moral conscience. Therefore we must reserve for such
actions the kind of penalties that are required in order to show our respect
for life. If we can distinguish between guilt and innocence, then we can
distinguish between the abortion case and the death penalty case.

The recent suspension of the death penalty by the state of Illinois
reminds us that the question of capital punishment is nevertheless a
complicated one, and we should be sure of the principles that underlie
whatever position we take on such an important matter. Some have suggested
that Gov. Ryan’s action is inconsistent with his proclaimed support for
capital punishment. I am not familiar enough with the condition of the
Illinois justice system to have an opinion on whether the decision to
suspend executions was reasonable in this case. But I do believe strongly
that those who understand the real reason for supporting the death penalty
will also understand that scrupulous care in order that justice be done is
not incompatible with support for the death penalty. Ultimately, support for
the death penalty must be grounded on the love of justice and an unqualified
respect for the dignity of innocent human life.

I believe it is an imperative of the respect for life that we retain the
death penalty as an element of law in certain limited cases. If we do not,
we risk applying a corrosive relativism to our national respect for life.

A society cannot afford to uphold a false standard for those who target
and take human life in a cold-blooded and egregious way merely because it
obstructs their selfish purposes. When killing is motivated by passion of
certain sorts, or when there are other mitigating elements, we might
reasonably be led to back away from imposing the ultimate penalty. But when,
in the absence of such mitigation, one person cold-bloodedly slaughters
another — motivated solely by his own profit and interest — then we are
called upon as a society to respond to the lesson of profound disrespect for
life that such a crime teaches.

We must never casually impose death on another, but nevertheless our
response to the worst crimes must be adequate to the threat to human dignity
that such crimes represent. It is very difficult for mortal man to
understand a heart that kills in cold blood. Accordingly, it is particularly
difficult to know what possibility there is for any restraint in punishment
that would amount to a genuine act of mercy. Sometimes we have to dispatch
those people to the God Who is the Judge of us all, and can see into their
hearts, and understand what possibility there is for their redemption,
because we cannot.

The law is, among other things, one of the principal educators in a
society. If we intend for our citizens to take seriously the injunction,
“Thou shalt not kill,” then we had best reserve the ultimate penalty for
those who do kill in an egregious, cold-blooded way that assaults not only
the life of another, but in many instances also the structures of the
society, such as law enforcement and the courts. Those institutions are put
in place to protect life, and they must be supported and reinforced by the
society’s actions. By restricting the death penalty to extreme cases of
savagery, we do all we can to demonstrate the dignity of innocent life, the
gravity of offenses against it, and the great concern we have to be sure we
do not let our punishments themselves become offenses against the dignity of
life.

The danger of our punishment itself becoming an offense must be
constantly guarded against, and this is why it makes real sense for
supporters of the death penalty to be also supporters of imposing the
highest standards on the processes of our justice system. So while, in and
of itself, in principle, the death penalty is morally justified, if a
society permits it to be carried out in a way that is careless and
discriminatory, or which does not take care that we are making the most
conscientious effort to ascertain guilt or innocence according to due
process and the law, then the same motives that support the death penalty in
principle become motives for suspending or opposing it. But this is not an
argument in principle to prohibit the death penalty. It’s actually an
argument to improve the integrity of our judicial process until we can again
be sure that the application of the death penalty will be a real sign of
societal respect for life.

Too frequently, however, opposition to the death penalty arises from
those who do not understand the crucial role that stern justice can play in
demonstrating and encouraging respect for moral dignity. Some people are so
preoccupied with racial phantoms, for example, that they cite statistics
that show a disproportionate application of the death penalty to blacks,
without even bothering to examine the racial statistics of the victims of
violent crime. They would discover from that juxtaposition that the racial
disproportion among victims is just as great, and that the attempt to soften
punishment is actually just offering a license to the killers to prey on
innocent, helpless people in their community.

Good reasoning about the death penalty arises, finally, from the same
sources as good reasoning about all moral matters. We must be willing to
face the truth that virtue and vice arise from the soul of the free human
person, and that it is no compassion to treat people as though they are
incapable of giving moral determination to their own lives. We help one
another to moral freedom principally by treating every human person as the
free and responsible moral agent that he is, and can more perfectly become.

The death penalty is important because it demonstrates a society’s
respect for morality. Morality is about ultimate goods and evils. Hence, the
death penalty is the epitomizing instance of our common resolve to presume,
in our dealings with one another, that we are all capable of doing good and
avoiding evil. This presumption of moral responsibility operates usually in
happier situations than cold-blooded murder. It is the foundation of our
order of political liberty, and the justification of our claim to be a
sovereign people whose government is not our master, but the instrument by
which we help ourselves accomplish justice in the ordinary circumstances of
life.

In a time of intellectual and moral confusion, thoughtless sympathies
abound. The execution of the humbled and now powerless killer seems
particularly apt to provoke such sympathy. But we owe it to ourselves and
our country to think clearly about such matters. By abolishing the death
penalty, civil society would deprive itself of the means of manifesting its
deepest moral premise — personal responsibility for doing good and avoiding
evil — in precisely those situations where that premise is most directly
threatened. The cold-blooded killer has treated the innocent victim as
though he were guilty, and the necessary corrective is for society to insist
on treating the guilty killer as what he is.

The temporary suspension of the death penalty by those who support it in
principle, in situations where the guilt of the accused is unclear, is
accordingly not a sign of softness, but of moral seriousness. Opponents of
the death penalty in Illinois have praised it as such. They should
understand as well that its resumption once the integrity of the trial
process is reestablished, and its normal place in the American system of
justice, are also signs of the moral seriousness of the American people.

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