February 8, 2002

Getting Even

I believe that people would be alive today if there were a death penalty.

Nancy Reagan

One terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, took part in all of the training that the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged The Pentagon did, but he did not take part in its destruction. He has been captured and it seems certain that he was one of the conspirators. News-people report that he will be tried and subjected to punishment that might include the death penalty. This implies that the ultimate punishment is death.

Does this mean that the fanatics who destroyed the world trade center and killed thousands of people have already paid the "supreme penalty?" Does this mean that we are "even" with the terrorists? Can we ever be "even" with someone who has extinguished the lives of such a large number of people? Are we even with Timothy McVeigh now that he has been executed?

I remember the concept of "getting even" from my childhood. If someone hit you and you hit him back you were even. I experienced it as an adult when I heard a member of my infantry platoon say, "If they kill our medic, I'll kill theirs." Since I was the medic, I could imagine a German infantryman saying the same thing and I could imagine me in the sights of his rifle. It was very disturbing. That red cross on my arm conferred questionable protection.

This talion(retaliation) principle, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, has been enunciated in the Old Testament and the Koran. The New Testament principle of love your enemy has not, to my knowledge, ever been put into practice by any nation. However, the death penalty has been abandoned in almost all industrialized nations. The major exception to this is the United States where, I am told, the majority of people favor the death penalty. I am not a member of that majority although I am willing to make an exception in the case of mass murderers like Timothy McVeigh. I would also make an exception in the case of Osama Bin Laden. After World War II the Norwegians, who had not had a death penalty for a long time, made an exception in the case of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi.. I would not make an exception in the case of that would-have-been terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui for the simple reason that he didn't kill anyone. However, for the safety of the public, he should be kept locked up.

We have a president who seems to be enthusiastic about the death penalty. His rhetoric after September 11 sounded very much like someone (a judge or sheriff) in the old west who said something to the effect that the criminal "will be caught, given a fair trial and hung." Hanging is rarely used nowadays. The way of extinguishing life is now lethal injection. It is not as spectacular as the guillotine, but it is just as effective.

I suspect that the major determinant of our behavior as adults is the code of behavior that we learned as children. Does anyone ever grow up? I suspect that a few people do, but just a few, and it usually takes a long time. By that time a person is ready to pay the supreme penalty for having been born.

(Note to My Readers: There has been a good deal in the news about the value of mammograms. If you want to be un-confused, read my November 24, 2000 column http://www.mcn.orc/c/irapilgrim/brca16.html The news programs failed to recommend the most useful procedure: a competent annual breast examination combined with regular breast self examination.)

Next column

Return to Law and Lawyers Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page