August 1, 1997

Crime and Punishment

Execution is not a punishment. Torture or confinement is punishment. Execution simply gets rid of the criminal.

Timothy McVeigh has been found guilty of blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City, and he has been sentenced to death. The sentence will probably be carried out sometime in the next 15 years.

The word punishment is a semantic mess. When a boxer really lambastes his opponent, his opponent is said to absorb a lot of punishment. Will it keep him out of the ring? If he has any brains left after the beating, it might. The same word is used when a parent confines a kid to his room because he has misbehaved. The rational is that if he is made uncomfortable enough, he will not misbehave again -at least not in the same way. Some people see imprisonment as being a device to accomplishing the same thing. In some cases, it does; in others it not only doesn't help, but can be a training school for criminals.

In McVeigh's case, that does not apply, since he has committed a crime that is so monstrous that even the most ardent anti-punishment advocate is unlikely to even consider his release into the free world.

If it had been my child who was killed by McVeigh, I would want to beat him to a pulp with a baseball bat. After a while, I would want to do it again, and again, and again. But it wouldn't bring my child back.

When some tyrant executes the members of his opposition, he isn't interested in improving them, or punishing them. He merely wants to get rid of them because, as Nicolo Machievelli pointed out, if he didn't get rid of them, they would get rid of him.

There is one reason for sentencing McVeigh to life imprisonment rather than death. That is in case of the remote possibility that he didn't do it. Many a jury has been sure of a person's guilt and we found out later that he didn't commit the crime.If he confesses to the crime, this consideration doesn't apply. If he confesses, I see no reason to keep him alive.

There is a good reason for executing McVeigh: a person like him would be dangerous even in prison. It seems likely to me that, unless he is done away with, he is might kill again. The next time it would be a fellow prisoner, or a guard. Or he could escape and kill again. Anyone who could blow up a building full of men, women and children, is capable of anything. Therefore, I should prefer, as they say in Startrek, that he ceased to exist. Everyone would feel safer with him gone -but only very slightly safer. There are others just like him.

Or, as H.L. Mencken put it,"Hanging one scoundrel, it appears, does not deter the next. Well, what of it? The first one is at least disposed of."

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