I’ve never been one of those eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth advocates. The idea of cutting off thieves’ hands for stealing, stoning adulterers, or hanging the treasonous, has always seemed barbarous. I’ve also never been entirely comfortable with the concept of capital punishment, but there was a time when I thought that, in cases of particularly heinous crimes for which the persons committing the crimes showed absolutely no remorse, perhaps it was appropriate. Even after becoming a Buddhist I wrestled with this issue. I wondered if such people had, through their actions, severed their ties to civilized humanity and forfeited their right to live. As they were unlikely to contribute anything of value to society, their continued existence seemed pointless. And what if they were released from prison? Having already shown such disregard for life, wouldn’t they be likely to kill again? Execution seemed the only sure way to safeguard the decent, the innocent, the non-killers. I was still more or less opposed to the death penalty, but I did think that sometimes, in some cases, there might be some justification.
After decades of Buddhist practice and study, though, I’ve changed my mind.
It’s not that I haven’t listened to the arguments put forth by supporters. I’ve listened, discussed, argued, and given it serious consideration. I’m anti-war, but I reluctantly concede that there may be some instances where some kind of military action is unavoidable (no preemptive strikes, please!). I’m against violence, but if someone’s attacking me, you can bet that I’ll do my best to survive, even if it means killing my attacker.
Of course, I hope I’m never in that position. Killing…ending a life…is never something to be taken lightly. Nichiren says “a single life is worth more than the major world system”, not differentiating between the life of a good person or an evil person. Our human tendency, however, is to assign differing values to other people’s lives, even if we are not actually called upon to decide whether someone should live or die (as I would have had to do in that hypothetical situation of killing an attacker). Because I was defending my life against someone whose intention was to destroy it, the karmic effect would presumably be less for me than it would be for the aggressor. There would undoubtedly be a police investigation, and possibly a trial, but I’d probably be exonerated. However, because there is no cause without a simultaneous effect, I would still have to deal with the resulting karma that I incurred by destroying life…even though it wasn’t my idea to be attacked in the first place. Something in my life, past or present, led to this moment, allowed this to occur; at minimum, it is my responsibility to determine the direction of my future to prevent it from happening again.
Proponents of capital punishment put forth this hypothesis: What if the victim was your child (or brother/sister/mother/father/wife/husband/etc.), who didn’t deserve to die? Why should the killer, that monster, be allowed to keep living, when the innocent is dead? In the TV version, it would happen like this: evil bad person kills good person in front of impeccably reliable witnesses. He’s summarily arrested; incorruptible police officers diligently gather incontrovertible evidence; skilled, impassioned prosecutor proves killer’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; he’s sentenced by a stern but fair judge and jailed briefly, just long enough for the scene where he shows no remorse, proving that he really, really is a monster who deserves to die. And then he’s injected with poison or electrocuted and it’s all over. Mission accomplished, justice done. Collective sigh of relief as we all move on…murderer descends to hell and suffers its torments for all eternity. No ambiguities: no cops being pressured to close a case quickly arresting the wrong person, no paid informants telling lies, no eye witnesses’ mistaken identification, no tampering with or suppression of exonerating evidence, no sleeping public defender, no incompetent judge, no jury manipulation, and absolutely no possibility of a wrongful conviction, ever. Die, monster, DIE!
That’s not the reality. In real life, all of the above have happened, and innocent people have been put to death, in some cases, their “crime” being poor and/or non-white. That reason alone is reason enough to outlaw capital punishment, all other arguments aside.
But to get back to the hypothesis, only those who have endured this emotionally devastating experience can answer the question meaningfully; for anyone else, it’s merely theoretical. Reactions differ. Some people crave a revenge that can only be satisfied with the killer’s execution. Some think that will satisfy them, only to realize afterward that the removal of what they perceived to be the cause of their suffering didn’t actually make it go away. Still others work through the pain by struggling to find meaning in their loss, even trying to forgive the killer. Sometimes they even succeed.
Does the killer deserve forgiveness? Perhaps not. Even if the answer is yes, that doesn’t extend to the jail doors being thrown open and his going about his merry way, possibly to kill again. But forgiveness is really more for the benefit of the person who has something to forgive, not the one who has done something unforgivable. The law of cause and effect trumps the laws of society, so no one who murders gets off scot-free, regardless of what takes place in a court of law. Does it benefit the life of the person who has lost a loved one to harbor feelings of anger, resentment, and a desire for revenge in his/her heart? Does that honor the life of the person lost? It does not. At best, a rage against the crime and the criminal may temporarily help you to avoid the pain, or fill the emptiness caused by having you love violently torn from your life, but it’s not possible to sustain for long without creating your own hell on earth.
To address the idea of the death penalty as a deterrent, it only (provably) deters the person who has already killed from doing it again. If it were really a deterrent, surely people would have stopped killing long ago. Life in prison accomplishes the same thing; the real problem is that a life sentence, even “life without parole”, doesn’t always work that way. There have been too many tragic cases where paroled killers did indeed kill again. But the solution to this problem is not capital punishment; it’s reforming our justice system, an issue that I’ll address in another post. A sentence of life without parole (barring a case of wrongful conviction) should mean just that. The killer should have to remember every day why he is in prison. Keeping him alive makes it at least possible that he will some day realize the enormity of what he has done. Execute him, and there’s no hope of that. Plus, the execution doesn’t happen by itself; actual humans have to carry it out. Why does this matter? From a Buddhist standpoint, destroying any human life is one of the worst causes a person can make. It’s less of an offense, perhaps, to kill someone after due process and according to the laws of society, but it is still an act of destruction, and the opposite of creating value. After all, even good people can benefit from an inner reformation; realizing that we all have the capacity for evil, we can strengthen the good in ourselves while seeking the good in others and encouraging its growth. We don’t need to be more angry, more vengeful, or more hateful, even though at times it seems completely justified. When we do, we are “feeding the monster”…making it even more likely that the unrepentant killer we sentenced to die will return again and again, lifetime after lifetime, perpetuating the cycle of death and destruction. Until we can break that cycle, the monster will never truly die.