The measure of a life

The recent horror in Pennsylvania made me think that we Americans have trouble taking the measure of a human life.  Or at least, the TV talking heads and opinionators have trouble, even unto cluelessness.  A man murdered half a dozen girls.  He had plainly intended to molest them.  What more is there to say?

Well, I heard a female TV psychologist say, “While we don’t know it for a fact, I can speculate that he had himself been molested when he was a child.”

Beyond the triviality of such speculation, the point seemed to be that the murderer couldn’t help himself.  He had been speculatively molested:  therefore, a murderer of innocent children.

This is the “resistance is futile” school of human behavior.  Here, we are in the grip of forces beyond our control.  The measure of a human life is no higher than that of a finely calibrated machine.  The Pennsylvania murders are the result of a malfunction.  The loss of the young girls is a regrettable waste but not a problem of morality.  In the “resistance is futile” universe, there are no problems of morality.  There are only the mechanical laws of life.

The murderer, in this awful case, blew his own brains out.  What fate did he deserve, if captured?  Pennsylvania has only executed three criminals since 1976.  The state would appear to place a high valuation on the lives of law-breakers, even killers.  It is fair to ask whether, from a moral perspective, this is actually the case.

The debate over capital punishment is really about the measure of a human life.  Arguments against capital punishment are both practical and moral.  This European Union human rights functionary, for example, maintains that “the administration of state killing via the judicial system serves no useful purpose in preventing crime but can have a brutalizing effect on societies that inflict it.”

Properly understood, however, both arguments are of the mechanistic variety.  Both contend that the laws of momentum regarding capital punishment impose brutalizing rather than preventive effects “on societies.”

The rights and wrongs of individual acts — the punishment or mercy these deserve —  aren’t part of the equation.  Our EU worthy would consider such an approach to be simplistic or worse:  barbaric.  “In a genuinely civilized and humane society you do not have the death penalty.”  If human action belongs to mechanics rather than morality, this proposition is undoubtedly true.

But then the same would be true of imprisonment.  Jail time doesn’t deter crime, and if executing criminals brutalizes society, what are we to say of the practice of penning them, like animals, in cages?  The concept of individual crime and punishment has no place in social mechanics.  Malfunctions should be fixed, not punished.  On this principle, the Vietnamese Communists, who believed in vast historical forces, sent their political prisoners to “reeducation” camps.

The Europeans have moved in a different direction.  They have trivialized crime by imposing trivial punishments.  The man who gunned down Pim Fortuyn, the probable next prime minister of The Netherlands, received an 18-year sentence and, if “rehabilitated,” could let loose before he’s 45.  He can still vote in Dutch elections.  A former bodyguard of Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic was condemned of war crimes at The Hague, then promptly set free.

Trivializing the consequences of human actions, no matter how vicious or vile, has profound implications:  human life itself becomes trivial, childish, and ignoble, a mere byproduct of inscrutable but all-powerful forces.  Its value is low — it can be snuffed out violently with little consequence.

Despite our televised psychologists, Americans think differently.  We have faith in individual morality.  Whatever the forces at work on each individual, he is, in a fundamental way, free.  The measure of a person, then, must be the sum of his actions:  we strive for good character, even nobility, and we admire those who achieve it.  Equally, we despise bullying, selfishness, and cowardice.  Those who engage in such low behaviors bring the measure of humanity down for all.

In the matter of capital punishment, we believe that individual inviolability is contingent rather than absolute.  Each of us is a moral agent, which means that our actions matter.  At a certain point, when we deprive others of life or dignity, we forfeit our own:  our license as moral agents expires.

This has nothing to do with deterring crime or any social effect.  It’s nothing more than just desserts.  Where the point of expiration lies is a fair moral and political question.  I myself would consider only the most heinous murderers for execution.  Others would disagree, on the principle that a killer is a killer.

But if human life matters most, then the malicious taking of innocent life condemns the killer to the greatest penalty.  In a dim, inchoate way, the murderer of the five Amish girls must have understood that, as he put an end to his own wretched life.

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