A lone gunman sprays the crowd with semi-automatic weapon's fire, mowing down 20 people. Six are dead, among them a little girl, just elected to student council and coming to see her Congress member, Gabrielle Giffords. Who among us does not feel sorrow and outrage? We see the demented-looking mug shot of Jared Loughner and want justice for the slaughter of innocents Christina Taylor Green, Judge John M. Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard and Gabe Zimmerman. But the situation calls for us to distinguish our urgent drive for justice from a baser demand for vengeance.
In the aftermath of the mayhem in Arizona, many are pointing to the need to lower the level of harsh rhetoric in our national politics. Ironically this discussion has engendered its own hostility, finger-pointing and now a claim of blood libel that seems peculiarly out of place in the context of the shooting of the first Jewish Congress woman from Arizona.
Emotion-fueled demands for the death penalty can only exacerbate the enmity. And, the execution of Jared Loughner, as much as it might satisfy our primitive thirst for revenge, would send a message diametrically opposed to what is needed. The death penalty just models the belief that if you have the power and think you're right, you're entitled to take a human life.
No conversation about the death penalty was harder for me than the one I had in late 1994 with the families of Dr. Bayard Britton and clinic volunteer Jim Barrett. As NOW president I had attended the trial of Paul Hill, the anti-abortionist who shot and killed the two men outside the Pensacola Ladies Center in northern Florida, wounding Barrett's wife, June, in the same attack. After three days of testimony, the jury took less than 2 hours to convict Hill of murder, and NOW issued a news release that included a statement of our opposition to the death penalty. The next morning I returned to the Escambia County Courthouse for the penalty phase of the trial.
Before I arrived friends had already told the slain men's relatives about my television appearance earlier that morning during which I had reiterated NOW's position against a sentence of death for Hill. They seemed hurt and confused, and my heart went out to them. We had spent days together in the courtroom listening to chilling descriptions of Hill's premeditated killing of their loved ones. Now they felt I had betrayed them. But putting one more person to death was not the answer then, and it is not the answer now.
The Illinois legislature voted on Tuesday, January 11, 2011, to make permanent a ten-year moratorium on executions in that state. If the governor signs the bill, Illinois will be the 16th state to repeal capital punishment, the highest number since 1978. It's a step in the right direction.
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
-Abolitionist Theodore Parker, c. 1850's , quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King on the march from Selma 1965.