At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

“Racism:” The Trial of a Word

posted by Jack Kerwick

In St. John’s gospel, the evangelist says of the wondrous deeds of his Master that so great are they in number that not all of the books in the entire world could contain them. It seems something similar could be said with respect to the virtually infinite claims of “racism” to which we are incessantly exposed.

But what exactly is “racism”? 

It seems to me that while each admits of a multiplicity of variations, there are essentially but four definitions or models of “racism”: (1) “‘Racism’ as ‘Racial Hatred’”; (2) “‘Racism’ as ‘Racial Discrimination’”; (3) “‘Racism’ as ‘Doctrine of Innate Inferiority’”; (4) “‘Racism’ as ‘Institutional Racism’”.  For convenience’s sake, unless otherwise stated, I will refer to each model in terms of the following abbreviations: (1) RH; (2) RD; (3) II; and (4) IR.  However it is specifically understood, in the popular consciousness as well as in the precincts of contemporary politics, the media, and academia, there is something on the order of a consensus that “racism” is something at once pervasive and immoral.

In what follows, while exploring these four accounts of “racism,” I establish two things.  First, they are mutually distinct and irreducible to one another—i.e., “racism” isn’t the unitary phenomenon that the singularity of the term suggests.  Second, and most importantly, each model, beset as it is with perhaps insurmountable difficulties, fails to accommodate the conventional conception of “racism.”  Because of spatial constraints, however, I will have to consider only some of these problems.   

“‘Racism’ as ‘Racial Hatred’”

 On its face, this seems as obvious a definition of “racism” as there is.  Yet intellectual seriousness demands that we look beyond surface appearances.  When we heed this call, what we discover is a model of “racism” that gives rise to more questions than answers, questions that, I submit, it cannot adequately address.

To my knowledge, in spite of its central importance to the RH model, this question has never been raised by any of its proponents. It is not hard to see why.

In posing this question, the defender of RH is thrown onto the horns of a dilemma from which there is no escape.  If he grabs the first horn and takes the position that racial hatred is immoral because hatred itself is immoral, then the fact that the hatred is racially oriented is incidental and, as far as its moral worth is concerned, irrelevant: it is the hatred, regardless of the reason(s) underlying it, that is immoral. “Racism,” thus, loses the distinctive moral significance that had been attributed to it.

If, on the other hand, our proponent of RH opts for the second horn and denies (what most religious and moral traditions outside of Christianity deny) that hatred itself is not always impermissible, but only racially-oriented hatred, then he risks similarly relegating “racism” to the moral periphery, so to speak. Racial hatred is usually condemned on the grounds that race is as irrelevant a characteristic as eye color or left handedness and, thus, undeserving of hatred.  But if this is what makes racial hatred immoral, then it is not racial hatred itself that is objectionable, but hatred invoked by anything irrelevant.  In keeping with our examples, racial hatred—“racism”—is neither more nor less objectionable than hatred of brown-eyed and left-handed people.

So, regardless of which horn the defender of RH embraces, he inevitably marginalizes the distinctive moral significance typically attributed to “racism.”

“Racism” as “Racial Discrimination”

The first thing to note here is that this model in no way relies upon the forgoing and, in fact, denies the latter: “hatred” is but one motive among many in which a person could engage in racial discrimination, but it is in no wise necessary for it. 

That being said, insofar as the conventional wisdom as well as most of the proponents of this model deny that “racism” is unconditionally unacceptable, the model itself fails, for there is scarcely a person with an iota of intelligence willing to deny that “racial discrimination” can, under some circumstances, at any rate, be permissible. Who objects to the owners of Chinese restaurants employing Asian workers so as to add an air of authenticity to the atmosphere?  Or who would object to Epcot Center at Disney World hiring only people of the related ethnic backgrounds to work at its various “Lands?” In fact, the most zealous of “anti-racists” are especially disposed to favor racially discriminatory practices under what they deem to be the appropriate conditions.

“Affirmative action”—race-based policies favoring non-whites, particularly blacks, over whites—is a legalized form of racial discrimination. Whether this type of racial discrimination is justified or not isn’t a question with which I am currently concerned. The point, rather, is that the “anti-racists” who demand “affirmative action,” asserting not just that it is morally permissible but morally obligatory, acknowledge, then, that racial discrimination can be morally legitimate.  But insofar as they unequivocally condemn “racism,” they concede, however implicitly, that “racism” and “racial discrimination” are two distinct phenomena, the one at all times immoral, the other not at all times immoral.

In response, it could be said that it isn’t always “racist” to discriminate on the basis of race, but only when race is as “irrelevant” as eye color or left handedness.

There are two quick counter-responses to this objection.

First, the notion of “relevance” is anything but self-interpreting.  A white employer may concede that any given black applicant is just as qualified as any given white applicant to do the job that he is searching to fill.  However, he may, reasonably enough, find the races of the respective applicants to be of extreme “relevance” if he is concerned about avoiding the astronomical costs in time, money, and reputation that would accrue to him in the event that the black applicant files a frivolous “discrimination” suit against him.  Or maybe for fear of merely being suspected of being a “racist” by a prospective black employee he may decide to avoid hiring him. On the other hand, a black employer, though aware that the job description in question is race-neutral, may nonetheless prefer a black candidate over a white one because he suspects that the latter will ultimately not be as harmed by being denied this one opportunity because of the more abundant opportunities that he thinks exists for whites. 

Second, if we accept that racial discrimination is immoral when race is as “irrelevant” as eye-color or left-handedness, then, as is the case when “racism” is equated with “racial hatred,” “racism” loses its distinctive moral significance, to say nothing of its special awfulness, for it is the “irrelevance” of the characteristic being exploited for discriminatory purposes and not the characteristic itself that assumes moral import. 

“Racism” as “Doctrine of Innate Inferiority”

The belief that the members of one or other races are innately inferior to one’s own need not be accompanied by either hatred for those people nor even a willingness to “discriminate” against them. Similarly, hatred for others and a disposition to discriminate against them need not be attended by the belief that they are innately inferior.

So, if the belief in the innate inferiority of races other than one’s own need not translate into bitterness and cruelty toward their members, then how or why can the mere possession of this belief be immoral?

Now is neither the time nor place to explore the complex relationship between belief and action, but suffice it to note that it is to our actions primarily that we ascribe the properties of “moral” and “immoral.” Our beliefs, we ordinarily think, may be “true” or “false,” “correct” or “incorrect,” but not “moral” or “immoral.”

Take, for example, the belief in “equality.” As the (black) author, Thomas Sowell, noted in his book, Black Rednecks, White Liberals, this belief has been enlisted in the service of such just and noble causes as the abolition of slavery, but it has also been used to justify the worst sorts of abuses in societies throughout the world.  Whether the belief in something like (moral, not arithmetical) equality can be said to be true or false depending on whether it has produced good or bad is a separate question; what seems more clear is that there is no way to ascribe any moral weight  to the belief on the basis of what has been done in its name.

As I said, the relation between belief and conduct is a vexed question, and I am not sure whether I am altogether convinced that beliefs in themselves are devoid of moral value. However, one powerful consideration in favor of the view discussed here is the phenomenon with which mostly all of us are all too familiar. As we grow older, most of us realize that much of what we previously took for granted is false. In fact, in looking back over the history of our nation and the world, we realize (or at least believe) that much of what whole peoples in past eras and other places have thought is simply false. If the possession of just one false belief, to say nothing of many such beliefs, is sufficient to convict one of immorality, then there is not one among us who can escape condemnation. Ptolemy was no less immoral for having held that the Earth was at the center of the universe than was Hitler for believing that the Jews were the ruin of Germany.

The proponent of the II model of “racism” is in a dilemma. If he concedes that beliefs are of no moral import, then he must admit that “racism,” contrary to conventional wisdom, is not a moral phenomenon. If, on the other hand, he maintains that false beliefs are immoral by virtue of their falsity, then like his counterparts, the proponents of the RH and RD models of “racism,” he robs “racism” of its distinctive and particularly dreadful character.

From this dilemma I foresee no escape. 

“Institutional Racism”

In order to sustain their charge, in the face of an ever shrinking number of instances of overt racial hostility toward blacks, that “racism” remains a nearly insurmountable obstacle to black success, the proponents of the IR model have shifted their focus off of individual white “racists” and onto something more abstract, less visible, but potentially much more formidable: society’s fundamental institutions.

The reasoning here is basically as follows.  While individual whites may be (at least) consciously filled with nothing but good will toward blacks (and other minorities), the very institutions of which American life is constituted and within the framework of which its citizens’ worldview(s) have been formed are profoundly “racist.”

So, “racism,” then, requires neither hatred nor a willingness to discriminate nor a conscious belief in the innate inferiority of other races.  In ways of which the best of intentioned whites are utterly unaware, their society’s institutions, like the Devil in some imaginings of the Christian narrative, determine their every wicked thought, word, and deed. The comic Flip Wilson used to say when he succumbed to temptation: “The Devil made me do it.”  Apparently, whites can say when others accuse them of “racism”: “Social institutions made me do it.” 

This theory of “racism” is immune to refutation.  This isn’t because it is true, though. It is immune to refutation for the same reason that Solipsism, the theory that only one’s own mind is real and everything else but figments of it is impervious to refutation: it is designed to absorb all criticisms. There are, however, damaging claims that can be made against it.

First, institutions, though human, are nevertheless impersonal entities.  The three branches of government, the family, and boxing, are alike institutions. To impersonal entities it is improper to ascribe moral characteristics, whether positive or negative.  The persons who engage in those institutions may be “just” or “unjust,” “virtuous” or “vicious,” “right” or “wrong,” “racist” or not, but the institutions themselves are “useful” or “useless,” “efficient” or “inefficient,” “antiquated” or “novel,” “necessary” or “gratuitous,” etc.

In other words, this model of “racism” involves a fundamental confusion of categories. It makes no more sense to speak of an impersonal institution as being “just” or “racist” as it does to speak of an impersonal knife in these terms.

Second, the IR model relies on persistent statistical disparities between blacks and whites with respect to a number of social indicia—rates of crime, illegitimacy, unemployment, education, incarceration, etc.—where the former is at a disadvantage relative to the latter. 

Analyzes of this data are in no short supply, so I won’t bother reiterating in detail what has been said already.  But plenty of respectable thinkers, black, white, and other, have shown that the categories “black” and “white” are fictional monoliths that obscure crucial intra-racial differences that, when taken into account, produce a dramatically different picture from that painted by the proponents of the IR model. For instance, when blacks and whites of the same description—e.g., married, college-educated, etc.—are compared, such statistical disparities nearly vanish completely, and in some instances, blacks fare better than whites.  Economist and nationally syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams, for example—a black man—showed over ten years ago that for every $1.00 earned by college educated white females, their black counterparts earned $1.25!

The IR model of “racism,” like the others, flounders.


The aforementioned models or accounts of “racism” I contend are comprehensive. Every notion of “racism” is some variation or other of one or more of these four models. I argued that each is distinct from and irreducible to the others, and none of them are adequate. Where does this leave the concept of “racism?”

It is undeniable that racially-oriented injustice is a real and dreadful phenomenon that has plagued our world for as long as there have been distinct racial groups.  Yet the term “racism”—understood as denoting a phenomenon that is at once pervasive and immoral—is a word whose time has expired.  It should be retired, for it possesses no clear meaning and it is much more often than not employed as a rhetorical device whereby whites are bullied and intimidated into making concessions of various sorts to the uncompromising demands of our “politically correct” orthodoxy.                   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Why I Defend Ron Paul

posted by Jack Kerwick

Although I have defended him on numerous occasions, it may surprise some readers of this column to discover that not unlike his legions of detractors within the Republican Party, I too have some problems with Ron Paul.  But for at least two reasons, the impulse to come to his defense I have found difficult to resist.

First, in distinguishing themselves from their opponents, Republicans invoke “the conservative principles” for which they stand.  These principles, they assure us, are also America’s “founding principles”: “limited government,” “liberty,” “individualism,” and the like.  Thus, in the spirit of these eternal verities, Republicans—during election season, at any rate—incessantly call for reductions in the size and scope of government.

Now, Ron Paul’s vision for America is as close an approximation of that of the Founders as any on the scene today.  For all of the criticism to which Paul’s Republican rivals have subjected him, not one of them dares to put into question his commitment to limited—dramatically limited—government. 

So, when a Republican politician comes along who is passionately, unequivocally committed to restoring the Constitutional Republic that our Founders crafted for their posterity, a Republican who enthusiastically embraces the very “founding principles” that the GOP claims to affirm, and that Republican isn’t just criticized—this is bad enough—but resoundingly ridiculed as a “crackpot” by his fellow Republicans, it is hard for a Republican voter not to get more than a bit perturbed.

I anger for Paul, it is true, but also for the millions of Americans who regularly vote Republican (including myself), for the readiness with which Paul’s rivals insult him over his positions has, ironically, exposed their own insincerity.  You see, when push comes to shove, what we invariably discover after they are elected is that the vast majority of Paul’s embittered brethren are almost as committed to maintaining the Welfare State as their leftist counterparts in the Democratic Party.  And they are more resolved to maintain, and grow, the Warfare State—a point that Rick Santorum made all too clear when, during the New Hampshire primary, he declared that far from bringing our soldiers home from the proverbial four corners of the Earth, the dangers posed by Islamic terrorists insured that we would probably have to increase our troop’s global presence.

There is another reason why I defend Ron Paul.

For the activity of bullying, I have zero tolerance.  Being weak and cowardly, bullies delude themselves into thinking that they’re strong and brave by fusing their individual identities with that of a collectivity, a gang or a mob.  This, regrettably, is what appears to have happened to Paul’s Republican abusers: they have acquired a “mob mentality.” 

That a mob mentality has taken over establishment Republican commentators when it comes to Ron Paul can be seen from both the swiftness with which one after the other piles upon him as well as the shoddy quality of their criticisms.  Distortions, insults, and outright lies abound.   

Take nationally syndicated talk radio show host and film critic Michael Medved for example.  If Paul’s Republican critics constitute a mob, then Medved is its ringleader, for no one more savagely and routinely—even obsessively—attacks the Texas congressman.

Medved is not beyond imparting insights; as one who regularly listens to his show, I can attest to this.  Yet his criticisms of Paul, almost to an argument, are worthless. 

When he isn’t referring to Paul as a “crackpot” and a “disgrace,” Medved is guilty of completely misrepresenting his positions.  Because Paul rejects a Constitutional amendment explicitly defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and because he thinks that consenting adult citizens shouldn’t be coerced into endorsing another’s understanding of marriage, Medved insists that Paul favors a literally anarchic situation with respect to marriage. 

In reality, only one who thought that government itself should be abolished—an anarchist—could adopt the position on the issue of marriage or any other issue that Medved attributes to Paul.  Clearly, Paul is no anarchist, for no anarchist would seek to hold an office in the government, let alone the office of the presidency

Ron Paul is very clear about his position on this issue (as well as every other, for that matter) in his Liberty Defined.  “In a free society,” he writes, “all voluntary and consensual agreements would be recognized,” and when “disputes arose, the courts could be involved as in any other dispute” (emphases mine).  There are two things here of which we must take note.  First, in maintaining that such “voluntary and consensual” arrangements as marriage deserve recognition, Paul maintains that the government must recognize them.  Second, the government provides this recognition by way of its judicial branch, by adjudicating disputes, issuing settlements, and the like.

Bullies are unfair.  That Medved and the mob that he signifies act like bullies when it comes to Paul becomes obvious once we grasp that Paul’s position isn’t as remotely as extreme as his detractors make it out to be.  In fact, it isn’t extreme at all.  As Paul observes, common-law marriage requires no license and is “recognized as a legal entity” in twelve states.  Does this practice portend the kind of mass chaos that Medved and company charge Paul of championing? 

When Paul insists that marriage is a matter regarding which “the government” should refrain from interjecting itself, what he is saying is that the federal government has no role at all to play here.  Yet he is also saying that neither should state governments embark upon the enterprise of defining marriage—not that they should literally stay out of the whole business of marriage.

Paul’s positions, whether on marriage or anything else, may or may not be rationally preferable to their competitors.  In order to determine this, however, his critics must be willing to first understand what Paul’s views actually are.  Through either a lack of ability or a lack of will, so far they haven’t come close to doing this.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

Politics and the Land of Make Believe

posted by Jack Kerwick

Among the shows I used to watch as a child was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  In every episode, Fred Rogers would whisk his viewers away to “the land of make believe.”  It has been quite some time since any reader of this column has been a child.  However, insofar as we involve ourselves in any capacity in politics, we continue to visit a land of make believe.

Given that it consists largely of myths, it should come as no surprise to hear that the world of politics is as close to a land of make believe as any adult is going to visit.  In the popular imagination, it is a truism that politicians are liars.  Certainly there are politicians who fit this description; but I don’t think politicians are more prone than anyone else to lie.  Politics is for the most part like play, an activity during which truth is suspended.  Perhaps many Americans are aware of this, and it is this insight, infrequently unconscious though it is, that accounts for why politics has acquired the less than flattering reputation that it has.  But if play precludes the category of truth, it precludes as well that of falsity.  That is to say, although politicians may not speak the literal truth, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are lying. 

There are two things of which to take note here. First, this is no defense of politicians.  Politics is like play, but because it isn’t identical with play, it is far from clear that any political actor deserves a pass for his or her suspension of the truth.  Second, it isn’t just politicians who are engaged in make believe, for it isn’t just politicians who are political actors: all of us who participate in politics are actors as well.  What this in turn means is that all of us who participate in politics are no less guilty of pretending than are politicians.  It also implies that if politicians are liars for their non-true utterances, than we are liars for ours.

Take, for example, those politicians, pundits, and voters associated with the Republican Party—i.e. “conservatives.”  Those who belong to this group claim to champion such things as “limited government,” “personal accountability,” “fiscal responsibility,” and “national security.”  Yet for as often as the party faithful iterate these “principles,” it is doubtful—impossible really—that anyone can truly believe that they represent anything meaningful. 

These bumper sticker slogans that somehow or other have succeeded in becoming the stuff of Republican pep rallies possess an elasticity that renders them all purpose devices. They are compatible with all manner of policies, both those that are characteristically advocated by Republicans as well as those advanced by Democrats.   

After all, no government can literally be unlimited in scope; there will always be areas of life that even the most powerful totalitarian governments simply won’t be able to do anything about.   And, as far as I can determine, there are no true believers in national insecurity, fiscal irresponsibility, and/or personal unaccountability

Only in the world of make believe that is our political reality could anyone genuinely endorse the notion—at no time more strongly underscored than during each election season—that our two national parties are engaged in a “fundamental philosophical conflict.”  Coupled with this fiction is another: nothing less than the ultimate fate of America herself hinges on the outcome of the next election.  All of this makes great drama, but none of it is true, for there is no fundamental disagreement between Republicans and Democrats, right and left: when they differ, our establishment political actors differ in degree, not kind. 

Consider any of the major issues that compose our politics.

All Democrats and most Republicans: support an income tax; present levels of legal immigration from the third world; Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in some form or other; and “civil unions.”  There is considerable agreement between the two parties on the need for “comprehensive immigration reform”—a euphemism for de facto amnesty—vis-à-vis the millions of illegal immigrants living amongst us.  And although Abraham Lincoln achieved a “fundamental transformation” of America the likes of which Barack Obama can only dream, and although Martin Luther King was an avowed leftist, both men are regarded as virtual saints by Republican and Democrat alike. 

Republicans purport to despise political correctness, yet they repeatedly legitimize the litany of politically correct sins.  When Democrats support affirmative action and Welfare, ridicule or attack black Republicans, or reject school vouchers, Republicans attribute all of this to their “racism.”  For that matter, because a disproportionately large number of abortions involve black fetuses, Republicans have even taken to accusing Democrats’ support of abortion rights as being fueled by “racism.”

Republicans are as incensed about “sexism” as they are “racism.”  If Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, or any other Republican woman comes under attack by their political rivals, it must be because of “sexism.”  And among the reasons that Republicans regularly submit for their outrage over the injustices that prevail in the Islamic world, one of the reasons why more American soldiers must forfeit their lives, if need be, is the “sexist” treatment of women there. 

It is true that while few political actors from either party as of yet will overtly endorse so-called “same sex marriage,” lest anyone suspect them of being “homophobic,” few will conceal their enthusiastic support for “civil unions.”  In fact, so opposed are Republicans to “homophobia” that, along with “sexism,” it is for the sake of combating this evil that they argue employing our troops to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Republicans are at least as committed as Democrats to social engineering, whether the society to be managed is our own or some other.  Truthfully, because Democrats tend not to have any of the zeal for the mission to democratize the world upon which Republicans would like for us to embark, the latter have an even stronger faith in the power of Big Government than the former.

Perhaps it is time for us to separate the world of make believe for the real world.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Thoughts on the Ultimate Penalty

posted by Jack Kerwick

Last October, at the time that two low lives from Connecticut went to trial for their horrific crimes against the Petit family, I wrote this essay in which I argued for capital punishment.  

Three years ago, two career criminals, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komiserjevsky, broke into the Connecticut home of Dr. William Petit where, over a span of hours, they pummeled him with baseball bats, reducing him to a bloody pulp.  Once the man of the house was out of commission, they proceeded to subject his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, to unspeakable torture and, eventually, death.  Prior to raping and strangling her, Hayes forced Petit’s wife to drive to the bank where he forced her to withdraw cash while his accomplice took his pleasure with her youngest daughter back at her home.  After Komiserjevsky had brutalized little Michaela, he bound her to her older sister and ignited them on fire.  At some moment during this time frame, Dr. Petit had managed to roll himself over to a neighbor’s house for help.  But it was too late.  His home, with his two precious daughters inside, had burned to the ground, and his wife, unbeknownst to him, was dead as well.

This past week, Hayes was convicted of his crimes. Komiserjevsky will be going to trial soon.  He too will doubtless meet the same guilty verdict visited upon his partner in crime, and when he does, his lawyer will surely fight just as diligently as Hayes’ to persuade the judge to spare their clients’ lives by sentencing them to life behind bars.

If they succeed and our custodians of law and order refuse to exorcise these two demons from the land of the living, the Petits’ as well as all law-abiding citizens will have been treated to an injustice eclipsed only by that which these monsters heaped upon this poor family. 

Hayes and Komiserjevsky must be put to death.  No one should accept anything less than the timely execution of these bearers of human DNA who chose repeatedly over the span of their miserable lives to divest themselves of every last vestige of humanity.  It is nothing less than cruelty to not only remind all of us—to say nothing of Dr. Petit—that Hayes and Komiserjevsky will continue to live, but to make us subsidize this exercise in futility, for it isn’t just the victims of this massacre who were the objects of these villains’ designs, but every member of this (legal) association of citizens that is vulgarly referred to as “society”:  that the citizens of the United States are related to one another qua citizens via laws means that the violation of any of these laws is tantamount to an assault against the association itself and, hence, each and every citizen.  He who doubts this should consider that no citizen is permitted to “take the law into his own hands,” to exact vengeance against his transgressors.

But when the association is undermined, whether from within or without, as profoundly and resolutely as it can’t but be by crimes as heinous as those committed by the fiends of Connecticut, the only fitting response to the perpetrators is death.

The debate over the death penalty has been raging, literally, for centuries.  It would be the height of presumption on my part to think that I could lend to it any original, much less unique, insights; this, however, does not mean that it would be altogether a worthless service to recall the pearls of wisdom that generations of swine continue to trample upon. 

Discussions over the death penalty have traditionally centered upon two issues: retribution and deterrence.  Proponents of the former argue that capital punishment is justified by the consideration that the executed deserves his fate; the advocates of the latter claim that it is on the basis of the consequences of the death penalty, specifically the consequence of deterring the capital crime of which the executed was deemed guilty, that it can be defended. There have been many variations of each of these positions as well as hybrid theories combining elements of each, it is true, but the opposite poles of retribution and deterrence are the principles constituting the framework within which all discourse over this topic has transpired.

Considerations of deterrence, it has been rightly observed by “retributivists” from Kant onward, are ultimately beside the point: the only question with which we need concern ourselves regarding the moral standing of the death penalty is whether the executed deserves his punishment.  Now, to my knowledge, it is in vain that one will search the historical record for a society that hasn’t, at some point, judged capital punishment a morally appropriate reply to some classes of crimes: murder has always been punishable by death, certainly, but until the relatively recent past, as far as the history of nations is concerned, it has never stood alone in any catalogue of capital offenses.  In fact, in our own country, as recently as the nineteenth century, murder was but one of over a dozen crimes—including horse thievery!—for which a criminal could be put to death.

The point is that we have the wisdom of generations stretching back to time immemorial to substantiate the judgment that there are indeed at least some acts deserving of death.  That the vast majority—virtually all—of the members of the present generation shares this determination is proven by its recognition of their notion of a “just war” and the legitimacy they ascribe to self-defense killings.  This nearly universal consensus on the justice of visiting death upon fellow human beings in some circumstances is not, of course, an infallible criterion of truth, but to reject the testimony of millennia and our own intuitions on the grounds that we can’t be absolutely certain of its truth, though not identical to it, is similar to rejecting your conviction that you are awake at this moment on the basis of the possibility that you may be dreaming.  With Pascal we can answer the skeptic that “the heart” has its reasons to which reason is and can’t but be oblivious, and with Burke we can say “that in this enlightened age,” we are “bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings,” preferring to “cherish” our “old prejudices” precisely “because they are prejudices” that have the sanction of “the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”   

If the opponent of the death penalty, while admitting that under some circumstances a party (whether an individual or collectivity of individuals representing a government) may be deserving of death, denies that a person, like, say, Hayes or Komiserjevsky, could ever deserve death by execution, the burden is upon him to explain this odd position.  It is odd because, while we may long to rid ourselves and the planet of our enemies on the battlefield, a person who fights for his country or his god, even if it is a country or a god that we reject and wish to defeat, elicits some measure of respect and perhaps even sympathy; in glaring contrast, criminals (in spite of the media’s attempts to romanticize them) generally, and violent, murderous criminals of the Hayes-Komiserjevsky variety in particular, are beneath contempt.  In other words, if enemy combatants are deserving of death, then predators like Hayes and Komiserjevsky are that much more deserving, and if the latter are not deserving of death, than no one is.

Even acknowledging, though, that the death penalty may be justified, we haven’t substantiated that it is the course of action that we should pursue: just because so-and-so deserves such-and-such doesn’t mean that we should give that person what he deserves.  The only endorsable reason for resisting the government’s administration of the death penalty to those who deserve it is that innocents may be killed.  And this is a weighty objection indeed.  It is not, however, nearly as weighty as it is often thought to be.

Absolute certainty may be available in the way of analytic propositions expressing what David Hume called “relations of ideas”—“If Joe is a bachelor, then Joe is an unmarried man,” “All green Martians are colored entities,” etc.—but it promises to forever elude us in every other sphere of life.  Man does not live by logical certainty, as it were.  In spite of centuries’ worth of attempts on the part of Rationalists of various sorts to change this, it remains as true today as it ever has.  He who waits for absolute certainty before he acts never acts.

Thus, that there always remains the possibility that an innocent person will be executed, though regrettable, is emphatically not the decisive objection against the death penalty that it is typically depicted as being.  In fact, it is far from it.  Furthermore, given our criminal justice system’s appeal procedures and the enormous advances in DNA testing, this possibility has diminished to the point of being negligible. 

Finally, many of today’s apologists for capital punishment argue for it only as a response to one crime: murder.  To this line the objection has been raised that in order to be consistent, such proponents should favor, say, burning down the homes of arsonists, abducting kidnappers, assaulting those convicted of assault charges, and raping rapists.  The implication here is that it is at once absurd and arbitrary to insist upon death for murderers just because they unjustly inflicted death upon others. 

Surprisingly, I agree with this criticism, for the argument at which it is aimed, embodying, as it does, pseudo-arithmetical reasoning, is rationalistic.  Yet it is easily defeated by the single observation that murder has always been classed among capital crimes, not because of any material similarities between murder and execution but, rather, by virtue of the fact that murder is by its very nature grave or heinous.  However, what this means for its supporters is that they must favor the death penalty not just for the crime of murder but for all comparably heinous offenses.  I have never found the sense in the position affirming capital punishment for a murderer but not, say, for a rapist who beats his victim within an inch of her life, or one who attempts to kill another but fails. 

The death penalty is the just response to all heinous crimes.

Lest I be accused of just talking the talk, so to speak, let the reader know that it is with unadulterated honesty that I can say that so pained am I by the fact that oxygen remains available to Hayes and Komiserjevsky that I would rejoice at the invitation to drive to Connecticut from New Jersey to inject them myself with lethal poisons, or tie the nooses around their necks, or fill them with lead as part of a firing squad.  I would consider it among the greatest services that I could provide to my fellow citizens, my tribute to justice.

Let there be no mistake about it, though I would be lying if I pretended that I have always honored justice, the conviction with which I argue for the death penalty is born, not, as the enemies of capital punishment insist, of some irrational “blood lust” or desire for “revenge”—if I was thirsty for blood than I should be willing to settle for anyone’s blood, not just that of those found guilty of unspeakable atrocities. And since I have never been within 100 miles of Hayes and Komiserjevsky, much less fallen prey to their devious machinations, there are no transgressions that they have inflicted upon me personally that I have to avenge—but of the union of two intense longings, one for justice and the other for compassion: justice because Hayes and Komiserjevsky deserve nothing less than death and compassion for the Petits’. 

It is the enemies of the death penalty, self-declared “abolitionists,” who suffer a deficit of both justice and compassion.  

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 


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