Friday, June 10

Selling Death, Expressing Life

This is part ⑤ of terrette's death penalty discussion.
terrette: My response to your mail will have to be in different parts. I'll state, in my own words, what I think your defense of the death penalty is so that you can verify if I have understood you well. Later, I will return to the Anderson essay, although I am less interested in Anderson's piece per se than in how you use Anderson or arrive at or make your own arguments. And, lastly, I will present, briefly, my own position on the death penalty.

First, however, I need to point out that you passed over some questions from my previous letter. For that reason, and for your convenience, I will copy them once again here and reformulate them so that I can be sure that you have understood them.

1) Why is it fair and just that the United States remains the only so-called Western democracy that practices the death penalty? I think this is an important question. I try to imagine you raising your children in a Christian heritage and I see such a scene as this: one of your children hears on the news or reads in a newspaper that one of the criteria for a nation's admission into the Federation of Europe is the abolishment of the death penalty. Said child then asks: Mom, why don't the Europeans execute evil people like we do here in the United States? What is wrong with Europeans? Do the Europeans not know the importance of the God-ordained value of human life? Do they not understand the importance of expressing that ultimate value? Has something changed in Europe, Mom? Are Europeans less God-fearing than we Americans are? Don't they understand that when someone takes another's life, his or her right to life is thereby revoked automatically, without anyone having to "take" it, and that, therefore, the death penalty is just? (You will appreciate, I hope that, in formulating these questions and in fictionalizing this scene, I have tried carefully to remain faithful to your own language, just as I imagine one of your children would.)

So, what do you tell your inquisitive child when such questions arise? And how, generally, do you understand this evolution away from the death penalty exhibited by all but a few developed nations (the United States, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia--to name those that surpass all others in the application of the death penalty today)? Are you against the international movement away from the death penalty? Do you see it as a sign of moral decrepitude or degeneracy on a global scale? What are the consequences, do you think, of the "ultimate value of life" not being "expressed" by means of the death penalty in European states? Is the ultimate value -- life -- better "expressed" in the U.S., Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, today, than in other parts of the world?

2) Did God ever command for us to destroy the bodies of our fellow citizens? I am particularly surprised that this question received no clear reply from you. Indeed, I am surprised at how little use of scripture you make, given that your point of entry in debate (into this one, of course, but most likely as a rule) is to demand who is Christian and who is not, and who believes that Jesus is the savior and who does not. Can one seriously argue from and for Christianity by relying only on second-hand commentaries? I think my question would be more pertinent if, in it, I changed "God" to "Jesus" (though most Christians would see no difference between the two), since using "God" allows death-penalty apologists to make a facile recourse to certain texts in the Old Testament without, however, confronting the thought of Jesus Christ -- the figure who at the outset of our discussion seemed immensely important to you and whose importance I myself argued for, since Christ's having died at the hands of a mob-incited sovereign has, in my view, left a legacy of death penalty appropriations, permissiveness, and support throughout history. The problem with not citing the teachings of Jesus, of course, is not simply that it makes us look like poor scholars; rather, it tends to suggest that an important part of Christianity—Jesus!—has been obscured intentionally or unwittingly by the Christians who would speak in his name so as to defend the destruction of others' bodies. So, to repeat: where does Jesus teach that we should destroy others' bodies? Doesn't the most obvious, most widely recognized, teaching of Jesus go in the opposite direction, namely by insisting that we not use a recourse to violence, and not take steps to destroy the bodies of those who have or would harm us? If you feel I am simplifying or distorting the Christian message, please tell me how you think that to be the case, for, to this point, I simply cannot make sense of your keeping the voice of Jesus silent on the issue of the death penalty. Should I see significance in the fact that, when faced with the task of arguing on the “basis” of Christianity, you leave the Bible unopened and put your faith in Anderson’s Probe Ministries and….President Bush? A vestige of your Catholic upbringing, perhaps, this apparent recourse to “authorities” and a corresponding neglect of the Book itself? (Let me add here, in passing, that I did find, as you had asked me to over the phone, a substantive statement on the death penalty made by George W. Bush: it was the erroneous and long-ago debunked claim—that nonetheless appeals to the vengeful and fear-throttled masses— that the death penalty is dissuasive.)

I hope these comments have made my questions clear. Now, finally, I have a moment to read your message once again. You wrote:

Starting from the end of your letter, we were not talking about the same woman. All of the comments that I included about the Florida case were from her mouth, not from mine. I saw her speaking on television, and I later read her comments in a news magazine. She said that it was her desire to get the execution over with, that she knew she was guilty, that if released she would kill again, and that she didn't want to cost taxpayers any more money, or the families any more heartache.
Actually, I have been able to verify that we were speaking of the same woman. The State of Florida does not put so many female convicts to death for us to have been speaking about two different women. Moreover, my suspicion concerning the unstable and thus unreliable nature of the woman’s declarations was also supported by a number of accounts about which I’ll speak in a moment. But, before we explore the consequences of your insisting wrong-headedly that we were not speaking of the same woman, the question remains as to why you bothered to paraphrase her (here saying that the comments were “from her mouth,” as if there were no difference between paraphrasing and quoting), as if one could always, according to some sort of infallible ground rule, always be sure, in paraphrasing another’s words, to have identified and carried away another’s “actual” meaning, and be certain, moreover, that the other in question was master of all that their words “actually” mean.

The woman in question was named Aileen Wuornos.

In comments I found online, Ms. Wuornos also said, in what were apparently her final words, that she “would come back on the ‘big mother ship’ with Jesus.” Here are a few more of her words, whose actual meaning I would be wary to announce to others in a cocksure paraphrase, let alone claim to have understood myself: “I'd just like to say I'm sailing with the Rock (Jesus) and I'll be back like Independence Day with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mother ship and all. I'll be back.” It is notable that she makes more references to Jesus in her final statement than you have till this point in our discussion. It is notable, precisely, because, as I said earlier, in the award-winning documentary on her that I viewed, Ms. Wuornos made several sarcastic and bitter comments about her trial lawyers’ greed and, notably, their attempt to “Christianize” her experience by claiming—in the face of her then staunch refusal of guilt and her unmistakably irreconcilable attitude—that Ms. Wuornos felt ready to die. They did this, she explained to the interviewer, with the sole purpose of ending her life so that they, the trial lawyers, could collect their money and be rid of her. Now, I am not sure that I can take as being reliable of any of what Ms. Wuornos said either during the program I watched, or on the news that you saw or read in a magazine (what magazine?) and subsequently reported to me. I say this not only for abstract reasons concerning the difficulty of interpreting another’s intentions. I say this, in addition to the reason I have just discussed, in light of the following information, which comes from another report on the documentary (no longer available online, where I first retreived it):

Wuornos' last interview was given to Nick Broomfield, the British filmmaker who in the early 1990s made a documentary film on Wuornos entitled, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Following the interview, Broomfield told reporters that Wuornos was "mad" and "totally lost her mind."
In the same report, we learn that, shortly before putting Ms. Wuornos to death, the State of Florida contradicted this finding and stated that Ms. Wuornos was sane. But, in all this confusion, are you still so sure that you can paraphrase Ms. Wuornos’ statements without the least bit of concern for their reliability? Without the least thought as to whether they might not actually mean what they seem to mean? Personally, I think that, given her statements concerning the “big mother ship” and the “Rock,” the possibility that she might have been exercising, as I believe her to have done in the documentary named above, bitter, dead-pan sarcasm, must at least be taken into account. Just as we must take into account the very real possibility that Ms. Wuornos was not entirely in her right mind and might, for that reason, not even herself understood what she “actually” meant.

In the face of all these difficulties, what did you do? Without properly quoting Ms. Wuornos, and without citing your sources, you tried to stiff-arm me into sharing your cavalier approach to her statements and, subsequently, you roundly rejected my hesitation and concern whether we were speaking of the same woman. You tried, moreover, to convince me, afterwards, that you had done nothing but faithfully portray her actual thought; that you had added nothing and not expressed your own opinion, not even by implication as you included the paraphrase (unidentified as such) in the midst of your argument for the death penalty. You tried to make me believe that your paraphrasing what you heard on “the news” (what televised news program were you watching?) and included in the midst of your argument for the death penalty could not itself be interpreted as a reflection of your views or intentions, at least not without violation of Ground Rule #2. Listen, once more, as you do this:

You are in violation of one of our ground rules which was that you would not attribute to me any statements that seem to you to be what I would say. I did not add any of my personal opinion to her statement, nor did I express my opinion regarding her comments.
This is so easy for you to say, isn’t it? It is childlike in its simplicity. But why—I repeat myself—why did you include a paraphrase of her comments in the first place? Contrary to your claim that I was in violation by trying to understand your paraphrasing her words, there is good reason for interpreting your paraphrase as I did. Why do I say this? Because something you report her as having said seems to support your own views on the death penalty. It is central to your understanding that no one be held accountable for the death of the convict other than the convict themselves. No one “takes” the life of the convict, you say, since the convict, in killing another in a premeditated manner, has by that very act, “given up” their right to life. Given this logic, isn’t it conceivable that, whether you were aware of it or not, you paraphrased Ms. Wuornos for the reason that her supposed willing and non-ironic and wholly sane acceptance of her sentence would exemplify or console this very idea of a self-assumed self-destruction?

Wouldn’t it be convenient if all convicts threatened with the death penalty would spare the rest of us the shame we might feel or the guilt we might bear in seeming to have to “take” their lives from them by simply offering their lives up, willingly, in trustworthy, wholly sane, final-hour speeches whose meaning struck us all like a bolt of justice and reason?

One could certainly think you had had such a thought for the reasons I have just indicated, and that that is what appealed to you in how you understood Ms. Wuornos’ statements. But whether or not this was the case, it would be at least responsible for you to counter what you see as my misinterpretation of your paraphrase by saying why in fact you paraphrased Ms. Wuornos. It would be more responsible of you to say how I am to understand your including a paraphrase in a discussion about the death penalty than it would for you to enter into some kind of cat-and-mouse chase in which I am left guessing at why you asked me if I had heard the news of Ms. Wuornos’s death or paid attention to the words she reportedly spoke (and in which game I am deemed "in violation" of a ground rule if I guess incorrectly).

As a final note to this part of your message, let me recommend an interesting documentary that you might find at your public library or perhaps, like I did, see on cable television. It was done by the British filmmaker Nick Broomfield and is called Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. With this film, viewers are able to explore many different types of people who profit from the demonizing and physical destruction of convicts in the United States. You, personally, can also, perhaps, reflect on your own gullibility in having swallowed whole and with apparent eagerness another death-penalty story packaged for your consumption by the press (which press?).

In the next part of your message, you give what I see as the clearest statement of your understanding of the necessity of the death penalty, first by remarking that,

Capital punishment does not 'increase ' the value of human life.
As I explained in a previous message, I have noted the correction that is implied by your use of quotation marks around a word that I myself used to characterize your thought. Now, I understand: capital punishment does not “increase” a value that always remains the same, that always remains, as you say, “ultimate.” What it does is simply to “express” the value. Here are your words, of which I underscore a few, to better draw out the line of questioning that follows:

Human life is of ultimate value because human beings are created in the image of God. The death penalty is an expression of the value of human life in that the highest penalty that could be imposed on a violator is required of one who would take someone else's life without just cause. Again, I don't see the criminal justice system as the big, bad guy here. The murderer gives over his right to life when he commits the crime.
Parenthetically: I don’t understand your use of the word “Again,” as if we had already characterized the criminal justice system as “the big, bad guy.” What were you thinking of when you used that expression? Did someone else characterize the criminal justice system in that way? Did you already take your distance from such a characterization? Where? When? With whom are you having a discussion here, other than with me?

Concerning the “expression” of the value of human life, I wonder: how do you understand the importance of “expressing” this ultimate value? Are there other ways of expressing it? If so, how do they compare with that of the death penalty? Is the death penalty necessary, as a means to “express” the ultimate value? Is it the best means available for expressing it?

Is the death penalty better at expressing the value of human life than, say, developing a universal health care system in the United States, much like humans enjoy in Canada, the European Union, or other parts of the world from which the death penalty has been banished? Is it more effective at expressing the value of human life than would be restraining corporations from polluting the air and soil in a way that leads to untimely sickness and death among humans living in the US and elsewhere? If I mention these two examples, it is, of course, because the same political groups that vociferously support the death penalty tend also to be those that argue against the regulation of corporate sovereignty and who forestall and obstruct in myriad ways the development of universal health care for US citizens. One could, of course, mention many more aspects of the ”conservative” agenda that seem, at least on the surface, to be very poor means of “expressing” the “ultimate” value of life. (By asking questions, you understand, I am purposely leaving you room to make corrective statements here, should my understanding of these issues appear to you to have gone astray).

One might also wonder if other “expressions” could be compared to the “expression” of life that you find in the death penalty. For instance, does playing volleyball with friends and family express the value of human life, as you understand these words? Does hugging our loved ones, or preparing food for them, also express the value of human life? However you understand the relation between these particular examples, the point remains: if you believe that the value of the death penalty resides in its capacity to “express” the ultimate value of life, you should at least be able to state what importance you attach to this “expression” and how it compares to any other way one might “express” the value of life. Is the expression of the value of human life via the destruction of others’ bodies somehow unmatched and irreplaceable? And if this is so, why is this so?

And what, generally, do you understand by “expressing” the value? Does the value remain only “implied” before someone “expresses” it? Why must the value be “pressed out,” as the etymology of the word “expressed” would have it? How am I to understand the existence of an “ultimate” and timeless value that, despite its ultimate nature and timelessness, calls for the destruction of human bodies in order to be “ex-pressed”?

There is a troubling implication of your argument that I'm sure you haven't noticed, and it can be stated as follows: Isn’t it true that the expression of the value of human life via the death penalty is implicated by if not accomplished in the very act of premeditated murder (since, you have argued, the murderer “gives over” his or her life when taking that of another, and so no judge, politician, or group of voters need “take” it)? Do not pre-meditating murderers accomplish the very expression that you find necessary or important? Isn’t that the irrefutable consequence of your thought, and not simply what you “would say”? Isn’t it an undeniable consequence of your death penalty logic that self-destructing sinners by themselves accomplish the “expression” of the “ultimate value” of life? Isn’t it a clear implication of your argument that, not only by their own deaths, but by those they inflict on innocent people, premeditating murders “express” life’s ultimate value and help us innocent bystanders and television news consumers appreciate the expression of the ultimate value of life? If you reject this implication, can you explain to me how you manage to do so, without falsifying your own arguments? Read yourself once more, since all of what I have said here is found, overtly or by necessary implication and not mere conjecture, in your own words:

I didn't say that God alone has the power to 'take' a life (I don't like the word 'take' here because I argue that the murderer gave over his [sic] life, but neither do I want to trivialize execution).
Neither the murder nor the execution which you see as following in a machine-like, nearly automatic fashion, can be trivialized, it is true, since they are mutually implicated. If I understand you correctly, one cannot think of a pre-meditated murder that does not call for, at once, the counteraction of an “expression” of human life (via the destruction of the murderer’s body). As for the next sentence from your message, I am afraid that I simply do not understand it well:

I said that because God creates life, not all cases in which God takes life are relevant to the question of whether men ever have authority to do so.
Simply put: when does God “take life”? What are you thinking of? More importantly—and this would be another question that you have left in abeyance from a previous letter—why do you think “men” have the authority to “take” life? (I assume that you mean to keep the idea of “taking” under reserve, even though you have left off the so-called scare quotes this time.)

You will notice that I do not find convincing this attempt to minimize human responsibility by suggesting that no real “taking” is going on, and that, simply, principles are being recognized, expressed, etc. So, the questions remain, no matter how passive and lacking in responsibility you would like to portray those who support and carry out the death penalty (and that would include you and me, in so far as we remain responsible for our government’s policies): Does God give them this authority? Does Jesus? When does this happen? How can we be sure? And if this “authority” were given, would it be automatic, in the sense that it wouldn’t require a responsible decision on the part of “men;” that is, would it, as you seem to be arguing, apply automatically, by implication or necessity, without ethical intervention on the part of humans?

Now, in your next statements, you are, I am sorry to say, in gross violation of Ground Rule #2, and for reasons that can be shown easily, reasons which any slightly attentive reader can find in our previous letters. Just to be sure, I will quote from the previous letter, after we read once again what you wrote to me:

Did you miss the part that I found most compelling about Anderson's essay? The Old Testament law code was tied to a kingship of a particular people. The principle behind that law code is without fault - human life is of ultimate value. No one in the United States is lobbying to extend the death penalty to fortune tellers.
From these statements, it appears that you think that I was concerned about the possible state-sponsored killing of fortune tellers in the United States. You argue as if I thought the particular crimes considered punishable by death were of utmost importance, in and of themselves. What did I write, though? :

I thought it was significant that Anderson did not on principle reject this wide-ranging list of brutal punishments, but only vaguely distanced himself from “particulars.” In any case, the Old Testament prohibitions whose transgression merited death by a sovereign power are interesting in that they remind us of how arbitrary the criteria and application of the death penalty can be, depending on cultural and period preferences.
In other words, I am not arguing only or primarily at the level of the “particulars,” whether that mean fortune telling or any other crime. The death penalty is indeed applied unevenly and with the effect of destroying individuals groups that are felt to constitute a threat to a perceived majority. For an example of this, one would only have to think of the thousands of black Americans lynched at the rate of one a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by hate-driven white mobs. But the more important point, as I see it, is that, whether or not it is clearly arbitrary or discriminatory in nature, the death penalty is, in principle, not just. That is why I wrote that it was significant that Anderson did not on principle reject the death penalty in its wide application.

As I will make clear when I finally get a moment to offer my own views on the death penalty fully, I don’t think that a convincing argument against the death penalty can ever be made at the level of such particulars. Many liberals or left-wing politicians, however, remain caught up in such short-sighted arguments (but for reasons that I sympathize with, since it is not easy to persuade the mass of vengeful and fear-driven citizens on the basis of principles alone). Are many more blacks and Hispanics and prostitutes put to death by state governments in the United States than are wealthy white men? Do blacks in the US give much less support for the death penalty than do whites? Yes, to both of these questions, we know the answer to be “yes.” Do these facts seem at least worthy of investigation? Yes, they do. But do they define the essentially unjust nature of the death penalty? No, since the death penalty is unjust no matter who is its victim and no matter which group is, at any particular time, singled out by it, or falsely comforted by it.

Like me, it seems, you wish to argue on principle and not be bogged down by a discussion of the wide variation in the application of the death penalty. On that we can agree and I think our discussion is the better for our having reached this point of accord. But, once we reach this point of accord, I begin to lose your argument, for I cannot fully understand the nature of the “principle” on which the penalty would be based, nor—and this is equally if not more important—how you understand the relationship whereby the one would be “based” on the other. So that my questions will be more easily understood, let us pick up what I consider to be the most resounding statement of your views, the one which holds closest to the principle that would justify and necessitate the destruction of others’ bodies in cases of premeditated murder:

If the execution is the right punishment for premeditated murder, based on the principle on the God-ordained value of human life, then it is right.
Let me see if I can follow the structure of this argument — if A is right, then A is right. I have to say that, simplified in this manner, yours is an argument with which I would find it hard to disagree. But let me not simplify it in this way, precisely because the subordinate clause that appears between the two identical halves of your pseudo-syllogism appears to carry all the weight of the argument, however odd that may seem (given that it has been subordinated). In particular, the highly indeterminate expressed “based on” is asked to carry all the weight of the demonstration. But isn’t our debate, in one sense, precisely about what it would mean to “base” legal codes on ethical principles? What does it mean to “base” execution on a principle? Does that mean that the principle should apply in every case where “premeditated” murder has been determined (and we will have to leave aside, for the time being at least, all the complexities and precariousness of the notion of “premeditation”)? If that is so, if the penalty were deemed to be automatic, if it flowed from the principle ineluctably, then no ethical, truly responsible decision would be necessary, would it? We could simply line up convicted premeditating murderers and allow the principle to apply itself like a beam of light emanating from the night sky. In this way, we could say, execution would be “based” on the God-ordained value of human life — based on the value because not based on human action and human responsibility. Indeed, it seems to me that, with such an irresponsible idea that our actions can be pre-programmed, or rendered irrelevant, by a single, ultimate principle, we have left the realm of ethical behavior altogether and entered a fairy-tail scene in which we all passively witness the auto-application of a single, timeless, “ultimate” principle.

The problem with this scenario, as I see it, is that once we begin to think and hope for such an action-determining principle, we have no reason for acting responsibly; since justice, we presume, simply happens, always and everywhere, and that all that there remains for us to do is, at best, to "express" it.

Of course, you may respond by saying: “No, I don’t mean that humans don’t have to do anything at all. Someone has to apply the lethal injection; someone has to hit the switch on the electrical chair; I only mean that they are not responsible for what they do in the same way that the convict was, and that their actions are not unjust, since they apply a principle that itself is just, whereas the convict broke the principle and so acted unjustly.” But to this objection, I would ask: have you thought what it means to “base” one’s actions on a “principle”? As I see it, there are two widely different ways of understanding this formulation. On the one hand (and this hand seems to be yours), one may think of this formulation as increasing the righteousness and certainty of our actions, since, like a mathematical principle, their “truth” can be demonstrated easily. For instance, how shall we act when we are asked to complete the following equation on the “basis” of the principle of addition? 2+2=____. I will take that principle—it is, you would say, “without fault”—as the basis of my response and write “4.” In this way, I am certain that I have acted on the “basis” of the principle and I am certain that I have acted righteously and given myself the basis on which to make heated arguments with those who would question the necessity of my responding by writing “4.” On the other hand, however (and this is the hand that I suspect is much more relevant in the case of the death penalty and, indeed, in all truly ethical situations), one can understand “basing” one’s actions on principle to mean that the principle does not conclusively determine the nature and righteousness of one’s actions. This is not to say that the principle is itself weak or relativistic, but only that, by itself, it does not suffice to pre-program and decisively regulate human decision-making and actions. (In other words, in accepting this “other” logic of principle-based action, I am in no way opposing “relativism” to your “absolutism” or “ultimatism.”) What, I think, is involved in “basing” one’s actions on such a principle is all the conditions that make for a particular context in which the principle would act as “base.” The “base” remains a “base” but it does not, by that token (as in the application of the mathematical principle) decisively prescribe a specific response or action. If it did, then the action would not be ethical, it would be, rather, of the order of knowledge. But once we have admitted that it is of the order of knowledge, then the action that would be “based” on it is in fact wholly determined by it; it is defined and circumscribed by the principle. It is the principle, caught in an act of perpetual self-application. As a human agent, I don’t need to make a responsible decision; I need merely to plug in a rule (that, moreover—and this is confirmed in your manner of arguing—essentially plugs itself in). That is, in fact, the illusion that you tried to pluck from the Mount of Olives and offer up as the fruit of knowledge in our discussion of the death penalty.

There is another significant point of obscurity in your way of talking. Specifically, with respect to the principle that you have repeated, namely of “the ultimate value of life,” it is, first, not at all clear how this “principle” is to act as a “base” in your view of the death penalty. Assuming that by “ultimate” you mean not only “final,” but fundamental, in the sense of that which “explains itself” and cannot be submitted to further analysis—what philosophers call a “first principle”— I should say that, strictly speaking, taking as “ultimate” such a value would mean that not even the value of justice could preempt or forestall the value of life, and that, therefore, capital punishment itself would have to be suspended if one wished not to defame, uproot, or contradict this ultimate principle. Indeed, with the strict application of this “ultimate” principle, one would no longer have the means to distinguish between the just and unjust taking of life, since life itself, it is assumed, is of ultimate value. No taking of life could warrant or justify further death, whether that death be “taken” or “given.” That seems to be a clear indication of your “ultimatism,” and yet you seem to prefer abandoning your own logic while at other times you repeat it. Can you explain why this is so? What do you understand by an "ultimate" value? Once you admit that there are lives that are just, and others that are not, then the "ultimate" value of life no longer appears "ultimate," does it? Rather, it depends, in your view, on a divinely-inspired government official's assessment of whether a principle, expressed as an ambiguous fragment, has been respected by a given citizen.

Allow me to explain what I mean by "ambiguous fragment." It strikes me as interesting that your “principle” hardly qualifies as a principle in so far as it remains a fragment, “the ultimate value of life” that can be read either as a subjective or objective genetive (i.e., life's value is ultimate or valuing life is ultimate). In either sense, however, it seems no more a principle than does “the price of coffee in Peru.” Stated in the more conventional form of principles, one could say: “Life is the ultimate value.” However, between this vaguely articulated principle and the principle that “those who commit premeditated murder revoke their right to life, give their life over (and the state, representing God's will, needs to make sure that they do),” I have trouble understanding the relation. What, if you will, is the principle that links these two principles? If I understand the relation by once more striving to grasp the meaning of “ultimate,” I find that the one principle hardly leads necessarily to the other and in fact undercuts it. So, for your thought to be consistent or comprehensible, the relation must be different and, moreover, “ultimate” must not have the sense in your discourse that one normally gives the word. Can you tell me what that relation is?

It seems significant to me in this respect that while there are certainly passages in the Bible that could be used to support the ambiguous fragment that you call a "principle" -- namely, the “ultimate value of life” (however vague and impressionistic it remains) -- the principle that says that “those who commit premeditated murder must be put to death” is nowhere, to my knowledge, to be found in the Bible. So, is this truly a Christian principle? Does Christian doctrine, in its undiluted form, speak even of “premeditation”? We cannot forget how central to your argument for the death penalty the idea of premeditation is— no matter how subordinated it may appear—since, without it, the death penalty is not justifiable, in your eyes. Consequently, no notion of premeditation in the Bible means no Christian defense of the death penalty as you understand it. But, strangely, not even this obvious consequence seems to have given you pause.

Not to neglect any part of your message, I will let resonate the final words in which you return to the necessity of discussing the issue of the death penalty in terms of principles and, at the same moment, as before, place the weight of your argument on the subordinated, ambiguous and wholly indeterminate and unstable use of “based on.”

If it is wrong, based on the same principle, then it is wrong. Issues of timing, expense, 'heartache', or other cultures seem less important.
In my next letter, after I discuss the Anderson piece, I will suggest why the application or enforcement of a capital punishment that is "based on" the principle that life has "ultimate" value is misguided.

(11838) photo by terrette. Chautauqua Lake, NY