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"There is one expense no mortal can recover: a human life. For money, there are ways."
c. 421 B.C.
Capital punishment is one of the most volatile issues in America today. America’s unique mixture of cultures, coupled with a dedication to individual rights, creates a debate unlike that found in any other country. Americans can become enraged by senseless death, then sickened by the conditions in a police state. American history is the story of the battle between ‘lynch mob justice’ and ‘rule of law.
The social contract, in a broad sense, is the collection of written and unwritten rules which are key to social order in a community. America’s social contract has evolved with the goal of maintaining individual freedom to the greatest extent possible. The rights to freedom of speech, religion, and political affiliation are supported by he overwhelming majority of Americans. These are the foundation of the shared system of values from which modern American law has grown. The extent to which these rights have been practiced has varied over the last two hundred years. In just the last fifty years, several battles have been fought to define and expand these rights to include an ever growing portion of the American populace. The Red Scare, anti-war protests, civil rights demonstrations, and the feminist movement are perhaps the best known examples of Americans fighting, at times literally, in defense of personal freedom and liberty. In each of these historical confrontations, a group has sought to alter the status quo in favor of a freer, more democratic society. And, in each of these instances people with vested interests in maintaining the more restrictive definition of rights has used violence and political repression to silence these voices of dissent. Each of these waves of repression threatened to derail American democracy, but each time liberty was triumphant. These struggles are clear evidence that the Constitution and the rights described within remains alive and vigorous today. With continued vigilance, Americans can continue along the path towards universal freedom and a truly democratic society.
The creed of American freedom has long been, ‘...to extend individual freedom to the greatest extent possible without infringing on the rights of others.’ Thus the greatest crimes that can be committed are those that violate the rights of an individual. Subsequently the American social contract includes rules governing how Americans behave in social interaction. Most Americans believe people have the right to live in safe neighborhoods. People have the right to own property without fear of theft or vandalism. Above all else, Americans believe in the right to live. No one should be forced to live in constant fear for his or her life.
Americans have banded together to form one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world. Using indicators like per capita income and literacy rates, America leads the world. Still, however, crime exists. Theft, vandalism, battery, rape and murder are criminal acts because they violate the rights of the victims. Theft and vandalism are attacks on an individual’s right to own property. Battery is a violent attack on an individual’s well being. The ultimate violations of the social contract are murder and rape; these crimes violate an individual’s right to live.
The natural progression of social evolution in for the social contract to be codified into law. Indeed, beginning with our earliest governance document, the Declaration of Independence, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have been recognized as rights possessed by each individual. Government in America has developed as the best way to protect these rights; government has the power and authority to enact and enforce laws with the intention of protecting the property, well being, and lives of Americans.
Theft an vandalism are property crimes. Incidences can range from minor acts, such as adolescent pranks, to major crimes, like armed robbery. These acts deprive the victims of the basic right to own property. Vandalism can be a minor annoyance, or so destructive that it threatens a person’s livelihood. Communities form formal governments to prevent these crimes. By banding together and respecting the rights of others, individuals act to protect their own rights. Thus the social contract, far from being an instrument of repression, is the key to liberty. Individuals are inspired to join communities by their own self-interests.
In the case of these relatively minor crimes, communities generally apply punishment to reduce their occurrence. In most instances the perpetrators are not real threats to the stability of society. Teens who are motivated by the natural sense of adolescent rebelliousness and alienation generally develop into productive adult members of society. Other crimes are inspired by peer pressure, intoxication, or extreme circumstances. Perfectly rational individuals are, at times, motivated to commit acts which, in normal circumstances, they would never consider. The people who commit these acts do not represent a serious threat to the safety of the community at large.
The most heinous crimes, on the other hand, are those that directly affect a person’s physical well being. Rape and murder are the most extreme of crimes because they destroy an individual’s right to self-security. Murder is the unjust taking of a life. In some cases the taking of a life is morally acceptable or even morally mandated; few would find fault with a parent who kills in defense of a child. Rape is a violent act which is more offensive than other forms of violence because it is a vicious attack on an individual’s mind as well as body. A rapist commits irreparable damage to the victim.
These acts represent the truest threats to social stability. All crimes, to some extent, disrupt the orderly conduct of life in a given community. Theft is minor irritant when compared to a crime like murder. Euripides is well founded when he drew a line of definition between the two crimes. Human life, once taken, is irreplaceable. Money, automobiles, jewelry-all of these are mere objects. A community where its members must constantly fear for their lives is an unjust, and ultimately unstable, community.
Criminals who commit murder and rape can generally be placed in one of two categories: social or anti-social. Social criminals recognize the validity of the social contract and law; anti-social criminals refuse to recognize the social contract or the validity of the law. Social criminals commit acts which they know are illegal. Anti-social criminals are more dangerous, however, because they view their actions to be morally correct. Anti-social criminals believe that society does not have the right to regulate the actions of its members. These criminals are some times called ‘criminally insane’ because they feel no remorse for killing or raping. This label has short comings because these individuals may be completely rational and sane, but still commit these horrible crimes. The root of the problem is that they don’t accept the basic values of the community in which they live. The co-existence of two radically different ethical systems leads to conflict.
These anti-social criminals are the greatest threat to the other members of the communities in which they live. To them, killing may easily equate to breaking a toy. Because these individuals refuse to accept the values of their communities, they may be incapable of peacefully coexisting with their neighbors. Communities form to protect their members. To this end, laws are enacted with punishments. It is possible for an anti-social individual to exist in a community without committing murder or rape. They may choose to follow the law out of self interest instead of moral conviction; remaining free and avoiding punishment may serve its purpose as incentive to act lawfully. Unfortunately, some criminals may still commit heinous crimes. The community is then morally obligated to act to protect its members. In America exile is impractical; communities must choose between execution and life-long incarceration.
In this instance, the criminals focused on are specifically those who have committed rape or murder. While anti-social criminals commit all forms of crime, this forum is far too limited for the necessary details required for a thesis on such a broad topic. The question is subsequently limited specifically to: is the right to life absolute in reference to anti-social criminals who have committed murder or rape? Murder is defined as the unjust taking of a life.
Execution is the ultimate form of exile. A dead criminal is one who will never again commit a crime. While execution is attractive for that very reason, it is absolutely imperative that it only be applied carefully. Many communities through out history have applied the death penalty as a means of social control, political repression, or religious intimidation. In a society such as America, where freedom is the core of the social contract, this use of the state’s power is clearly unacceptable. For the state to wield any power carelessly is unacceptable, and for Americans to allow such injustice would be to ignore Thomas Jefferson’s command for eternal vigilance in against tyranny.
The community is allowed to act in defense of its members. The government is charged and empowered by the community to develop a code of law and to enforce those laws, with in the bounds of freedom and due process. Through government communities develop a system of punishments to deter crime. In general, incarceration and fines perform this duty well. In some cases, however, no incarceration or fine can truly equal the crime committed. Ultimately, the government, empowered by the community, does possess the power and the just authority to execute criminals.
Criminals for whom the death penalty is appropriate are a rare but frightening group. A serial murderer, or rapist is likely to be a candidate. Criminals whose crimes involve torture or mutilation are candidates for the death penalty. Some crimes are so heinous, so disgusting that they stand out. These are the criminals who may deserve the death penalty.
Executing a criminal serves two purposes: it restates the value of innocent life, and provides ultimate justice. By supporting the death penalty, a society is reaffirming its dedication to the value of life. Though this statement may sound contradictory, it isn’t. When a community executes a criminal, the community is making a firm statement that no individual has the right to commit murder. Individuals who commit murder deserve the most extreme punishment; punishment which reflects the nature of the specific crime. While some murders which are committed in the ‘heat of passion’ have extenuating circumstances, those truly cold-blooded and cruel murders deserve elimination from society. Not all murderers deserve the death penalty, just those who are anti-social, who commit horrid crimes, or those who, because they feel no real guilt, would gladly commit more if given chance.
The death penalty is the ultimate form of justice for the most extreme murders and rapes. An individual who rapes women in a serial manner is distinct from a ‘date rapist.’ A serial murderer is distinct from a man who kills in an argument. These anti-social criminals commit crimes for which they deserve to die. Because of some basic tenets of American society, torture is not used as punishment. Americans have recognized torture as one of the most inhuman cruelties which can be committed. Thus American society, as a civilized society, has the right to execute these most disgusting criminals.
The final, and perhaps most controversial, reason for some criminals to be executed it that, `it feels good.’ It is a final end to the life of a man or woman who has violated the most basic of rights: the right to live. The punishment for such a crime is the revocation of the criminals right to continue existence. Seeing a man who has raped and tortured several women executed provides closure. Seeing a criminal responsible for the mutilated bodies of young boys found buried in a ditch justly killed provides a reaffirmation of dedication to justice. When a serial killer is executed it is clear testament to the dedication of members of a community to the safety and value of innocent lives in that community.
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