I’d like to offer a simple proposal that, if enacted, could generate a great deal of a most precious resource: moral clarity.
It concerns the death penalty.
Opponents of capital punishment for murderers argue that the state has no right to take a murderer’s life. Apparently, one fact that abolitionists forget or overlook is that the state is acting on behalf of the murdered person and the murdered person’s family, not only on behalf of society.
In order to make this as clear as possible, here is my proposal: Americans should be able to declare what they want the state to do on their behalf if they are murdered. Those who wish the state to keep their murderer alive for all of his natural years should wear, let us say, a green bracelet and/or place a green dot on their driver’s license or license plate. And those who want their convicted murderer put to death can wear a red bracelet and/or have a red dot on their license.
Just as I have a pink “donor” circle on my driver’s license signifying that in case I die, I wish to provide my organs to help keep some person alive, I wish to make it known that if I am murdered, I do not want my murderer kept alive a day longer than legally necessary.
There are a number of reasons for recommending such a policy.
First, as noted, it is clarifying for the individual. It is easier to take a position in the abstract than when it hits home. It is one thing to oppose the death penalty when others are killed, but if you have to decide what happens if it is you who is murdered, the mind focuses with greater clarity.
Before deciding which color to choose, let a woman imagine herself raped and then stabbed to death. And let her further imagine that if this happened to her, she now has some say in determining what happens to the person who did this to her. She is no longer a silent corpse. Her voice will be heard, perhaps even be determinative of her killer’s fate.
Likewise, the woman who truly opposes death for any murderer, no matter how heinous and sadistic his actions, will also now have the ability to speak from the grave. No matter how much her family may seek the death penalty, family members will have no say. Any woman – or man – who passionately opposes the death penalty under every conceivable circumstance can now help to ensure that at least in his or her case, a murderer’s life that might have been taken might now be preserved. There is no more direct way to give death-penalty abolitionists the right to have a say over the fate of a murderer.
Second, such a choice gives great power to the individual. Abolitionists who live in pro-death-penalty Texas, for example, can now have a say on a matter of enormous moral magnitude. And pro-death penalty citizens living in states that have either legally or de facto abolished the death penalty regain a sense of power over their life (or death, to be precise).
The whole American experiment has been predicated on giving individuals as much control over their own lives as possible. But this has been undermined in the last 50 years, as the state has gotten ever more powerful. Giving murder victims say over their murderer’s fate would be a small but symbolically significant step in Americans reasserting the importance of the individual. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate arena than in determining what happens to the person who murdered you.
As dark as thoughts of one’s own murder may be, we all think about it. And I don’t think I speak only for myself in saying that I would rest just a tiny bit better knowing that if I were murdered, my murderer might not be allowed to watch TV; read books; exercise; develop relationships with people inside and outside of prison; surf the Internet; sing; listen to music; have his health-care needs addressed; and be visited by loved ones while I lay in my grave.
And for those opposed to the death penalty, they, too, will be able to rest a bit easier. They will be assured that even men who came to their home, raped all the females in their family, and then set the house on fire with the family inside – as happened in Connecticut a few years ago – would never be killed by the state.
Third, it would be interesting to see if these color-coded bracelets and licenses had any effect on who gets murdered. Clearly, when the murder is a crime of passion, it is hard to imagine that a would-be murderer would stop himself from killing someone upon noticing a red bracelet or a red dot on a license plate. But crimes of passion are generally not, in any event, punished by death. On the other hand, in murders that could be capital crimes, it is possible (not necessarily likely, but possible) that a murderer (or even more likely, his accomplice, if there were one) might just re-think murdering the victim.
Fourth, choosing which color bracelet or dot on one’s license not only forces people to confront their own consciences, but it will undoubtedly engender deep discussions with others. To cite but one example, it can surely help singles who are dating. If you’re against the death penalty, and your date drives up with a red bracelet and/or dot on his license plate, you’ll have either a far deeper discussion than you would have otherwise have had at dinner, or you’ll spare yourself the time and expense of a date that will probably go nowhere.
These are some of the arguments for the plan. I can’t think of one good argument against it – unless you’re an abolitionist who is fearful of seeing red.