"There is one expense no mortal can recover: a human life. For money, there are ways."
c. 421 BC
Capital punishment is one of the most volatile issues in America today. Americaís 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 Ďlynch mob justiceí and Ďrule 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. Americaís 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 remain alive and vigorous today. With continued vigilance, Americans can continue along the path towards universal freedom and a truly democratic society.
"Good fences make good neighbors."
The creed of American freedom has long been Ď...to extend individual freedom to the greatest extent possible without infringing on the rights of others.í 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.
"There are two rules of governance in a free society: Mind your own business. Keep your hands to yourself."
Ludwig von Mises
Americans have banded together to form one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world. Using indicators such as 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 individualís right to own property. Battery is a violent attack on an individualís well being. The ultimate violations of the social contract are murder and rape; these crimes violate an individualís 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 and 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 personís 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; when individuals restrict their own freedoms they create communities where trust can exist.
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. Teenagers 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 because they generally respect the validity of the social contract and the legitimacy of the communityís right to establish law.
The most heinous crimes, on the other hand, are those that directly affect a personís physical well being. Rape and murder are the most extreme of crimes because they destroy an individualís 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 individualís 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.
Murder and rape are terrible crimes. There are times when an individual is correct in taking another individualís life. The example cited above as well as self defense are times when an individual is justly taking anotherís life. The right to life is a prerequisite to all other rights; a corpse practices no religion nor does it express political beliefs. No individual ever has the right to rape another; no circumstances ever exists which would justify this type of assault.
When a community attempts to address the issue of the death penalty, one of the first objections is to the permissibility of killing by the state. Is killing the proper response to murder? Does the state possess the just authority to end an individualís life? Both questions are good; both questions must be well addressed in order to understand the necessity of the death penalty.
The State, empowered by the community, does possess the authority to confine or execute an individual. Each community is unique; each has different cultural attitudes and traditions in regard to the death penalty. But at the core of most communities exists a mission, which government fulfills. The State is an institution developed by the people to protect the members of the society. The State is obligated to act in a manor which protects the members of the community. The State possesses the authority and power to impose fines and punishments to enforce the laws of the community. No community exists without the State. If every part of the federal, state, and municipal governments in America were to disappear, society would still be governed by family loyalty, friendship and hatred, the strong above the weak. When two individuals exist together they form a community. If they are in close quarters and never come to an agreement(formal or informal) of how to live, one will kill the other. The State exists in various forms in all communities. A formal government is the best manifestation, particularly with democratic values, of the State for enforcing law. Enforcement includes punishment.
Murder is an extreme crime, and, depending on the conditions of the crime, may justify the application of the death penalty. Rape is also a crime which may justify the application of the death penalty. Certainly, some cases donít justify execution. Execution is the ultimate punishment because it is the greatest condemnation of an act possible by society. Exile is impractical in todayís world; communities must choose between incarceration and execution.
Incarceration is appropriate for some murderers. While all unjust killing is murder, circumstances in each case are different. A man who kills in the heat of an argument has committed a crime, but his crime is not as bad as a woman who stalks and plots anotherís death. While a death caused in an accident may be involuntary manslaughter, it is different from the crimes of a serial killer. Incarceration is appropriate if the murder is unlikely to repeat the crime. The duration of the incarceration depends on the circumstances of the crime.
Ever rape has varying degrees. Date rape is wrong, but not really comparable to a serial rapist terrorizing a college campus. While rape is never justifiable, lines must be drawn in defining the different levels of the crime. For a date rapist incarceration is likely to be appropriate. The serial rapist is a much more sinister criminal. This criminal is a sexual predator, and is a threat to society. The punishment of a serial rapist should reflect the severity of the cases at hand.
Execution is the most extreme punishment allowable under American law. It should be reserved for the most heinous and evil of criminals. A terrorist who kills innocents deserves the death penalty. A serial killer who tortures his or her victims before putting them to death should likely be executed. Rapists who repeated attack women have proven that they are threats to society. Child molesters and people who put poison in food or candy before handing it out, these are people who are attacking some of the most defenseless member of society in a manor that is horrendous. These are criminals who are candidates for the death penalty. The nature of their crimes sets them apart from others. These criminals represent some of the most dangerous members of humanity.
Execution promotes the value of innocent life. A community which back its dedication to the safety of its members with the death penalty reiterates its social values. The death penalty says to every single member of the society that murder will not be tolerated. A community which truly honor the lives of its members is creating an instance where the perpetrators of such crimes should be willing to exchange their lives for the ones the take.
Some ask if the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. If it is, further good is done. It isnít, justice is still better served than it is by the weak punishments some killers receive. The death penalty reinforces a communityís dedication to peaceful co-existence. It is unjust for a brutal killer to have the opportunity for laughter, tears, love, and joy when his or her victims have been robbed of the same opportunity.
"Finally, even if there is such a right to life of the human species because of nature or God, when the species claims that right over itself in particular cases some other values with be necessary to determine the accommodation of hard choices, such as survival amid limited resources. In our actual lives the human speciesí right to life is not exceptionless. To talk of life, therefore, in this sense is an abstraction. We need to know what life might refer to other than the speciesí instinct for self preservation even at the price of killing other members of the species."
Stephen C. Hicks
Professor of Law
The individualís right to life is not absolute. the individualís right to be free from incarceration is not absolute. When individuals commit crimes, and are convicted through the due process of law, they should be punished. Some crimes call for fines, others for imprisonment, still others deserve the death penalty. Communities are formed in the interest of the their members. If some members violate the rights of other members they should be punished accordingly. When the crime commit is of a heinous nature, death may be the only just penalty. Some crimes are so horrid and devastating that their perpetrators deserve to die.