At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

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. 


Intellectual Corruption in the Age of Adolescence

posted by Jack Kerwick

A while ago I wrote an article that generated quite a discussion. With this I was well pleased.  Yet, I must confess, my pleasantness over the response with which this issue was met was qualified by a frustration mixed with regret over the fact that ours is a time when this would be considered an issue at all.

Particularly disconcerting were the remarks made by one respondent, a self-avowed “liberal” who also claims to be a college professor of many years.  While some of his comments were not devoid of insight, the thrust of his reasoning left me disheartened, for in spite of his age and vocation as an educator in the liberal arts and humanities, the anti-intellectualism and, thus, raw emotion on display in his engagement with a race-based issue—typifying, as it did, the reaction to racially-oriented questions that we have long since come to expect from his ideological and professional brethren—is further confirmation that ours is indeed an age notable for its conspicuous absence of genuinely mature thought, i.e. thought that is at once sober, daring, and rigorous.  

Such tough-mindedness is a commodity that is all too rare these days.  Most contemporary thought, whether it manifests itself among the left or among the conventional right, is, for the better part of it, juvenile. And that the reduction of Western civilization to a one-dimensional caricature of Oppression incarnate and the concomitant dominance of the idiom of “racism,” “sexism,” “classism,” “homophobia,” “xenophobia,” “speciesism,” “ageism,” and the like appropriated to describe it are the characteristics of the preponderance of literature that is scholarly no less than that which is popular demonstrates beyond a doubt that the zeitgeist is one of adolescence.

In the Age of Adolescence, the ad hominem argument—since Aristotle recognized as logically fallacious—has become the staple of contemporary discourse, particularly discourse over matters of race, gender, class, and sexual morality.  Conversation—once treated as an art—has become a virtually extinct species as argument has given way to name-calling, the analysis of conclusions to the imputation to one’s opponents of nefarious motives, the pursuit of coherence and clarity to political activism.  Those who know better—or who we think should know better—prefer to construe reality in rigidly dichotomous terms, a realm of angels, populated by themselves, and one of demons, inhabited by their adversaries.  Hence, the conventional rightist’s notion that his leftist counterpart is a “moral relativist” is a fiction of the first order. 

The problem with the leftist’s thought isn’t that it is relativistic; the problem is that it is a specimen of the most invidious absolutism.  “Mainstream” or “movement conservatives,” to say nothing of neoconservatives, tend toward absolutism as well, but few among their number would deny this. The leftist, however, has acquired for himself a reputation for being a “nuanced” thinker, a reputation owing in no small measure to his endless castigations of his right-wing nemeses for their “simplistic” judgments.  However, this reputation is thoroughly undeserved.  It is the antithesis of nuance, the height of being simplistic to, say, unequivocally condemn raw statistical economic inequalities as the offspring of nothing other than “savage capitalism;” American led wars as “militarism” or “imperialism;” opponents of “affirmative action,” abortion, “gay marriage,” illegal immigration, and “the Ground Zero” mosque as “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” “xenophobic,” and “Islamophobic,” respectively.

As I have already said, there are many on the right who are not above resorting to this anti-intellectualism.  Conventional “conservatives” not infrequently lend credibility to the left by either denying the charges of “bigotry” and “hatred” that the latter makes against them or by hurling them back: in either case, FOX News “conservatives” and the like reinforce our culture’s soft headedness by implying both that such epithets are meaningful and that they are germane to intelligent discourse. 

Accusing a fan of MSNBC of being a “FOX hater,” as Bill O’Reilly is prone to do, aside from being infantile, is also question-begging, and for at least two reasons: (1) criticism, even harsh and ostensibly unfair criticism, doesn’t necessarily reflect “hatred”; (2) the objections that a person makes against FOX, however ridiculous or inordinate they may be, are more likely than not to be the causes of one’s “hatred,” not the effects. And what can be said of “FOX hatred” is equally true of “racism” and the rest of the litany of our adolescent culture’s sins. 

The vapidity, excessive self-indulgence, immaturity, hypersensitivity, and transparent moral exhibitionism that commentators on both left and right decry about our “celebrity” driven culture they themselves tend to display within venues—like academia and news media—that are supposed to be devoted to the promotion of the free exchange of ideas. 

This is a most lamentable state of affairs, but it is to be expected in the Age of Adolescence.      

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Thinking About Blacks and “White Racism”

posted by Jack Kerwick

The rate of black on white violence is astronomically higher than that of white on black violence.  This has been the case for quite a long while.  In the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election, however, Barack Obama and his colleagues in politics and the media—including some on “the right,” let us never forget—assured us that the election of a black man to the highest office in the land would change of all of this.

Blacks, the optimists reasoned, upon seeing one of their own occupy the White House, would be all but compelled to abandon the belief that America—meaning white America—was a “racist” nation.  This in turn would both constitute and further the inauguration of a new, “post-racial” United States. 

For as appealing as many of us found the idea of an America within which blacks, whites, and others could co-exist peacefully, those of us who are pessimists never bought it.  For several reasons, we judged it hopelessly utopian at best, disingenuous at worst.

First of all, the narrative assumed that blacks are hostile toward whites because of their belief in white “racism.”  Interestingly, this assumption isn’t peculiar to the optimists, for many on the right have endorsed it as well. We should note, however, that it is anything but axiomatic. 

It is undeniable that within black American culture—the so-called “black community”—it is a given that the disadvantages of blacks as a group vis-à-vis whites are treated as the function of “white racism.”  Doubtless, although those individual blacks who could credibly claim to have experienced first hand white hostility are few and far between, generally, blacks would no more think to question the existence and prevalence of “white racism” than they would think to question their own existence. 

Still, this by itself doesn’t settle the issue concerning the motivation that informs much black animus toward whites.  There is another possible account that has no small measure of plausibility: the activity of targeting whites, if it comes at a cost at all, comes at very little cost to blacks.  To put it bluntly, blacks perceive whites as easy marks. 

Generally speaking (and it should go without saying that this is all general speak), white crime victims will have a significantly more difficult time identifying black perpetrators than they will have identifying white perpetrators.  Black criminals know this. 

But it isn’t just formal penalties that black criminals stand a greater chance of escaping in the event that they target whites rather than fellow blacks.  There are informal penalties, like retaliatory violence and the like, with which they are more likely to be met upon targeting other blacks.  To paraphrase none other than Jesse Jackson himself, it is hard even for blacks to resist the sense of relief by which they are overcome whenever they discover that the person walking behind them is white. 

There is another consideration that at once undercuts the “white racism” model of black-on-white hostility while strengthening my own account.  If it is “white racism” that fuels black aggression, then why is black-on-white violence dramatically greater today than it has ever been before?  After all, supposing for the moment that “white racism” is any kind of obstacle to black advancement today, no one denies that is has none of the ubiquity and robustness that it once possessed.   Yet in spite of this, yesteryear’s rate of black-on-white crime is a negligible fraction of contemporary rates. To repeat, as “white racism” diminishes, black-on-white hostilities increase.  Hmmm…..

The rise of black-on-white animosity is indeed difficult to explain if we insist on attributing it to a belief in “white racism.” However, if we consider it in light of the fact that blacks can in many instances attack whites with virtual impunity, then it begins to assume some sensibleness.

From this perspective, the idea that Obama’s election to the presidency would abate the belief of blacks in “white racism,” besides being false, is irrelevant, for the animus that blacks assert toward whites has little if nothing to do with this belief. 

A second reason for rejecting the optimists’ narrative is its naïveté.  If blacks, black youths in particular, refuse to be placated by legions of successful blacks in practically every aspect of American life, from the arts to the military, politics to the media, the legal profession to the medical profession to business, the idea that the presence of a black president is suddenly going to compel in them a revolution in attitude and conduct imposes an enormous tax on our credulity.

There is a third reason for the pessimism that attended the utopian fantasy of the “post-racial” society of which Obama would be the author.  Ironically, those people who labored incessantly to convince us pessimists and others to endorse this fantasy are exactly the same people who would simultaneously work just as diligently to insure that the perception of “white racism” remains alive and well!  Actually, this irony is only apparent, for those who sought Obama’s victory were, for the most part, his fellow travelers on the left and it has always been the left that has benefitted most from the belief in “white racism.”  In fact, it is the perception of “white racism” that Obama exploited in the first place in order to become president.

“Racism” is an industry, and has been for decades.  The election of a black man, a black man with the name of Barack Hussein Obama just seven years after Islamic terrorists murdered nearly 3,000 Americans on a day that will live in infamy, is indeed a potent sign that omnipresent and omnipotent “white racism” is a fiction of the first order.  Leftists recognize this, and in recognizing this they realize that their livelihoods and, in some instances, I’m sure, their very identities, are imperiled. So, like cornered animals scratching and clawing and biting to survive, leftists have, predictably, intensified their charges of “racism” since Obama’s election.  And there is no better way to do this than to transform every criticism aimed at the president himself, the very person, mind you, who holds the office that he does because of the support of whites, into a specimen of “the racism” of those very whites. 

Since Obama has become president over a couple of years ago, not only haven’t allegations of “white racism” not abated; black-on-white violence hasn’t either.  Moreover, a peculiar phenomenon has arisen in cities across the country, what has been referred to as “flash mobs.”  Mobs of blacks, mostly youths, will coordinate random assaults against whites by way of the cell phones. 

While these realities are ugly, to show that I am not devoid of all sympathy for our optimist, in the spirit of his disposition I will end this assessment on a somewhat cheery note: thankfully, neither Obama nor his minions will try to push this line of a “post-racial” paradise on anyone come next election season.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Nietzsche and the Left

posted by Jack Kerwick

While reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of the origins and nature of morality, I got to thinking about our contemporary political situation, specifically as it pertains to the left.

Rejecting as he did the very notion of objectivity, Nietzsche believed that all moralities, far from being the products of rational discovery, were creations, assertions of what he called “the Will to Power”—the desire, that is, of their authors to impose themselves on their surroundings. Invocations of Reason, God, Truth, Right, Good, and the like, are the stuff of the rhetoric of objectivity, smoke screens designed to conceal this desire. 

For example, a Christian, say, knows that he will convince no one to endorse his vision of the world by telling others that it would empower him if they too would become Christians.  So, he must employ language from which first person or subjective references are as far as possible absent.  And what is true of the Christian is equally true of all who endorse a “slave-morality.”  

The slave-morality is the morality of the masses, the morality of the herd.  Not only Christian morality but its secular egalitarian posterity—socialism, liberalism, democracy, communism, etc.—are expressions of the slave-morality, for they presuppose both resentment toward elites as well as denial of the radical inequality of persons and classes of which those elites are a standing—and painful—reminder.

The elites or aristocrats have their own morality, “the master morality.”  The virtues that belong to it are the vices of the slave morality.  Nietzsche writes that in the master morality, a person “has duties only to” his “equals.”  That is, “one may act towards beings of a lower rank, towards all that is foreign, just as seems good to one….”  From this perspective, an aristocrat’s obligations “to exercise prolonged gratitude and prolonged revenge,” “artfulness in retaliation and [refinement] of the idea of friendship,” extend only as far as his equals. 

As Nietzsche says, matters are “otherwise” with the slave morality. The slave morality arose in response to the master morality and as a means by which to subvert it.

“The revolt of the slaves in morals begins in the very principle of resentment becoming creative and giving birth to values….”  Adherents of the slave morality gave birth to the concept of evil, “the original, the beginning, the essential act in the conception of a slave-morality….”  The evil one of the slave morality is “just the good man of the other morality, just the aristocrat, the powerful one, the one who rules….”  The master morality’s “good man” is now “distorted by the venomous eye of resentfulness, into a new color, a new signification, a new appearance.” 

In the slave morality, “those qualities which serve to alleviate the existence of sufferers are brought into prominence and flooded with light: it is here that sympathy, the kind, helping hand, the warm heart, patience, diligence, humility, and friendliness attain to honor….”  Why?  Such qualities “are the most useful qualities, and almost the only means of supporting the burden of existence.” 

In short: “Slave-morality is essentially the morality of utility.”

Lacking the superior strength and intelligence of the adherents of the master-morality, the adherents of the slave-morality, via their resentment toward their betters, seek to vilify the latter while rendering themselves objects of “pity.”

One need not accept Nietzsche’s account of morality, or even deny the insuperable incoherence to which it ultimately leads, in order to acknowledge the insights that it imparts.  Not only am I not a Nietzschean, I enthusiastically embrace the very religious tradition with which he identified the much dreaded slave-morality.  Still, it is hard for me not recall his analysis whenever I consider the frequency and ease with which leftists—liberals, socialists, Democrats, and secular egalitarians of all sorts—charge those with whom they differ with all manner of transgressions: “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “Islamophobia,” “ageism,” “imperialism,” and “xenophobia,” to say nothing of “greed” and “selfishness.” 

In order to advance his egalitarian or “progressive” vision—an agenda that demands massive redistributive measures to which many are opposed—the leftist relies upon these devices to veil his subjective needs.  Like the proponent of the slave-morality who transforms the good man of the master-morality into “the evil one,” the leftist demonizes his opponents.  Thus, he who rejects race and gender-based preferential treatment policies, i.e. “affirmative action,” on the principled ground that our laws should be neutral with respect to such considerations is vilified as a “racist” and/or “sexist.”  The person who rejects “same-sex marriage” is a malevolent “homophobe.”  Those who believe that illegal immigration is destructive of our nation and who resist all efforts to enact another amnesty, whether it is de jure or de facto, are reduced to “xenophobes.” And so forth.

I don’t mean to suggest that such leftists necessarily are disciples of Nietzsche. I don’t believe that they are.  But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Nietzsche, if he could observe in action the contemporary leftist, would see in him a prime example of exactly the sort of phenomenon on which he wrote.  The psychological, emotional, and professional benefits of being on the left have long been noted by many an observer.  The leftist, in order to continue reaping these fruits, conceals his desire to do so by conveying the semblance of being concerned, not for his own interests, but those who are victims of the sins of his opponents.

We may all be a little guilty of this, but considering that the disposition to demonize and moralize is most salient in the leftist, he is the first person to come to mind in connection with Nietzsche’s exposition of morality.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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