Virtual Talmud

On today’s New York Times op-ed page, David Dow writes a very interesting but ultimately morally flawed article on the death penalty. In short, he suggests: Instead of focusing on the issue of whether or not someone convicted of the death penalty is innocent or not, “Abolotionalists… ought to focus on the far more pervasive problem: that the machinery of death in America is lawless, and in carrying out death sentences, we violate our legal principles nearly all of the time.”

Dow might be right that the bureaucratic machinery of American jurisprudence makes the death penalty a precarious punishment at best, but I would go a step further: The bottom line is that the death penalty only provokes more violence on top of violence. When one human being kills another, it shows that he/she is morally bankrupt; when a state sanctions the killing of another human being, it shows that humanity is morally bankrupt. (For more on the immorality of the death penalty see Sister Helen Prejan’s writings.

The rabbis of the Mishnah (Makot 1:10) debate both sides of the issue, with Rabbis Akiva and Tarfon arguing that they would never have allowed anyone to be killed under Jewish law. On the other hand, Rabban Gamiliel suggests that had they done so, they would only have increased the murder rate in Israel.

Rabban Gamilel is statistically wrong. According to Roger Hood, “Scientific studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. The most recent survey of research findings on the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates, conducted for the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 2002, concluded: “. . . it is not prudent to accept the hypothesis that capital punishment deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment.”(from “The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective,” Oxford, Clarendon Press, third edition, 2002, p. 230) You can find statistics on the death penalty here.

The death penalty is nothing more and nothing less than a pathetic and morally bankrupt legal mechanism for people to play out their most animalistic impulses.

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