Sunday, January 13, 2008

More on Capital Punishment and Rod Dreher

I hate to return to the subjects of capital punishment and Rod Dreher once again, but I stumbled across an essay by Dreher from 2003 where he praises the felonious former Illinois governor George Ryan. Before his departure from office, Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates, thereby emptying Illinois' death row and winning the acclaim of death penalty opponents worldwide.

Dreher doesn't oppose the death penalty in theory, but rather in practice. "Capital punishment in practice is so fraught with systemic error and injustice," writes Dreher "as to make it intolerable in our society."

In an example of rigorous logic, accuracy and fair-minded writing, Dreher summed up my thoughts on the death penalty as “kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out.”

So if Dreher is opposed to capital punishment in practice, what is his solution? Well, he endorses a kind of futuristic Panopticon, which sounds like it sprang from the pen of a dystopian sci-fi writer. Dreher writes:

We now have something called a "supermax" prison, which are reserved for the most-violent and -dangerous inmates. For inmates, they are like living death. Inmates are kept in total isolation for 23 hours a day inside their solitary cells, and allowed to walk around for fresh air for one hour. Everything is done by remote control.

Why couldn't we abolish the death penalty, and use the money saved on the expensive death-penalty appeals process (which takes eleven years to complete, generally) to incarcerate those found guilty of first-degree murder at supermax facilities, without benefit of parole?


Is Dreher’s solution really more humane than execution? I’m serious. There are two terms used to describe hell in the New Testament. Hades, or Sheol in the OT, is a place of the departed spirits. Gehanna or Hinnom, was a dump outside Jerusalem, a place of trash and perpetual fire.

Hell, thus, is a place of wasted lives where meaning and relationship are negated, and absolute autonomy is asserted. Hell is a cosmic dump heap where all things are unrelated, where there is no community and nothing has any relationship to anything else.

This "supermax" prison is, literally, hell on earth, a place of absolute solitude and loneliness which is surely a fate worse than death. Yet Dreher defends it as a compassionate alternative to capital punishment. It is a "mercy" which should be gratefully accepted. "It seems to me," writes Dreher, "that if you have been found guilty of first-degree murder, you deserve to die; being left alive in a supermax jail, or some lesser version of same, is a mercy you aren't owed, but are graciously given."

Dreher rings his hands about the potential that an innocent man may die. In a world contaminated by original sin, this is indeed inevitable. And yet God’s Word (which one wonders if Dreher thinks a bit bloodthirsty) demands the death penalty, rather than torturous and perpetual solitude, for murderers:

"And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man" (Gen. 9:5-6).

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