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Death penalty – a sign of moral failure, not justice

Wednesday June 13, 2001

By Joe Loya 

Pacific News Service 


With the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, we are bound to hear once again that opponents of the death penalty never think about the victims. 

But I oppose the death penalty and I think of the victims all the time. I believe we give the victims’ side too much sway in the penalty phase of a trial, so that our courts do not dispense justice in the best interest so much as the vendetta justice of a blood feud. 

It seems to me that we, as a community, surrender some of our civility when we allow human sacrifice because it offers victims “joyful relief.” Civilized society is supposed to restrict primitive impulses. One Oklahoma grandmother, outraged when McVeigh was allowed a stay of execution so the court could examine allegations that due process had been violated, said, “My grandsons didn’t get justice. They didn’t get stays or lawyers.” 

Her anger is understandable and moving, but should her private grief automatically override the proper pursuit of justice? Should it necessarily make us all accomplices in a killing committed by the state?  

I’m not naive about the seductive power of retaliation, and I know about the perils of giving into the impulse for payback. I once did serious harm to someone who was brutalizing me – a justified act of self-defense under any moral code – but having a right to do something doesn’t necessarily make something the right thing to do. 

In fact, victims can victimize themselves when they become consumed with rage and obsessed with retribution. This plays out in fights between prisoners, where the slightest insult can bring a violent response. 

This complete loss of a sense of proportion may explain the Israeli citizen who told a radio interviewer he favored more F-16 bombings against the Palestinians because they only understand terror. 

This sort of thinking reveals the absolute backwardness of retribution. Once the thrill of tit-for-tat wears off, only more of the same will do. Emancipation from violence cannot be underwritten with more violence. 

I have diminished my strong impulse for retribution, but I wonder if I will be able to discourage my children from the socially permissible ethic of reprisal. (Teachers will tell you that when they break up fights, boys will tell them that their fathers told them to always hit back.) 

President Bush and other officials have called for “an unconditional cessation” of escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians, but they don’t see that the same principle should apply to the death penalty. 

That’s why a recent appeal from a group of religious, civil rights and political leaders for an immediate federal moratorium on capital punishment fell on deaf ears, as did Amnesty International’s criticism of the United States for its continued use of the death penalty. 

We are misled, like cops and guards who break the law, if we believe that an execution is the best way to confirm the values the criminal is thought to have violated. 

We should break the cycle of violent action and reaction by using our moral energy to unconditionally cease our need to avenge. It should be the work of a civilized, pluralistic society to mitigate the retaliatory impulse of blood feuds. Some rape victims and people whose loved ones have been killed have found ways to disengage from the compulsive desire for revenge. They refuse to allow the violence to disrupt their principles. Their moral strength is restraint, and they are heroes. They are our examples of how the cycle can be broken. 


PNS commentator Joe Loya is a California writer currently writing a memoir on his experience in prison. His e-mail address is