Connecticut just became the 17th state in the union to outlaw capital punishment. It now joins the company of such illustrious former colonies as my own home state,New Jersey.
This is a tragic turn of affairs.
Call me quaint, but among those figures from the past that I would love to see resurrected, and with a vengeance, is that of the dreaded “Hangman.” More so—significantly more so—than anyone else, it is he who had proven to be the most trusted and effective custodian of our liberties.
Lest I sound morbid, just consider that the Soldier is routinely thanked by his compatriots for “his service” to his country. Yet unlike the Hangman, the Soldier slaughters, not criminals, but other men who are serving their countries. These men may be as willing as is he to provide this service, or they may be conscripted. In either case, though, they are not outlaws. And although it is practically inescapable that with each war he prosecutes, the Soldier, however inadvertently, will wind up extinguishing the lives of non-combatants while causing incalculable amounts of structural damage, we still lavish praise upon him.
We erect statues in his honor, conduct reenactments of famous battles, and romanticize his exploits in cinema and television.
And we do this all for the sake of thanking him for “keeping us safe” by “defending our liberty.”
The Hangman, in contrast, targets for death only those who have been convicted of the most egregious of offenses. The concept of “collateral damage” has no application in his enterprise, for his objective is not to wreak widespread havoc but to distribute the ultimate punishment to those who have been found deserving of it. It is with the utmost care and precision that he conducts himself.
Still, he is despised while the Soldier is praised.
This is ironic.
The Criminal or the Outlaw poses a far greater threat to our liberties than any posed by the Terrorist or the Enemy Combatant. The reason for this is not difficult to discern.
The liberty that we Americans have grown to enjoy is not some universal abstraction. It is, rather, the product of law. Laws specify the obligations or duties of each citizen to another. For example, my right to freedom of association is really nothing more or less than the duty of every other citizen to refrain from preventing me from exercising this right. It is also my duty to respect the right of my fellow citizens to do the same.
The citizen is a composition of laws. As laws are weakened, so is the citizen. In the absence of laws, there is no citizen.
From this premise, a few inferences can be drawn.
First, since there can be no law without a law giver, and since government is, if not necessarily a law giver, a law enactor, there is a symbiotic relationship between citizen and government. There cannot be one without the other.
Second, since there is an inseparable connection between government and citizen, it is to the person qua citizen, and not in terms of any other persona, that government speaks.
So, the Florida prosecutor, Angela Corey, who charged George Zimmerman with second degree murder for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, betrays an alarming ignorance of her office when she declares that she is seeking “justice for Trayvon.” Whatever prejudices accompany the other roles in which life cast Corey, insofar as she is an agent of the government, she is expected to see only citizens, each of whom is indistinguishable from all of the others.
Justice, as they say, is blind. The government exists, not to avenge this person or that, but to preserve the integrity of the law, for without the law, all citizens perish.
Finally, it is precisely because the very existence of each citizen hinges upon the law that all praise is due to the Hangman. Every single one of the Criminal’s acts, however small or large, undermines the law. Every criminal act is an attack against every single citizen.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that every act is worthy of death. But inasmuch as the death penalty remains an option for the most heinous of transgressions, the citizen, by way of his government, sends the unmistakable message that he will preserve his existence at all costs. And this, in turn, is but another way of saying that his respect for the law is such that he is willing to extirpate those of his fellow citizens who would destroy it—and, with it, the citizen himself.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.