Tuesday January 8, 2008

Editorial: Poland, the Pope, and the Death Penalty

In the West life is a right, and life is sacred, just as long as the life we’re talking about is guilty of a capital crime

By John Jalsevac

John JalsevacFeatured prominently on the homepage of the not-so-subtly titled is a quotation by a Mr. John McAdams, a professor at Marquette University. He quips, “If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.”

To Mr. Adams it might not be a tough call, and to most of history this was not a tough call, but to most of the Western world, it is.

Indeed, so far the EU has completely eradicated the death penalty within its borders; so too has England, and so too have Canada and Mexico; and even in the U.S., for all of its reputation for out-dated cowboy-style justice, capital punishment has become an endangered species, nearly drowned out of existence by a flood of red-tape. For that matter, even the Catholic Church, that great champion of the union of stake, flame, and heretic, has in recent decades taken the lead in the effort to bring an end to capital punishment. (Of course, the Church has never actually condemned the death penalty as intrinsically immoral, but only “imprudent” and “unnecessary” in the developed world’s socio-political environment. But who has time for theological distinctions like that?)

This is not an article in defense of the death penalty. Indeed, it was only a month ago when I participated in a parliamentary-style debate in which I argued so vociferously, and (so I thought) so convincingly against the use of the death penalty that I actually began to believe I might have been right. It isn’t the death penalty that’s the issue here, but hypocrisy and muddle-headedness.

Yesterday, Pope Benedict, in his annual address to the diplomatic corps, touched on capital punishment, giving the EU a pat on the back for its abolitionist efforts. His statement, however, calls to mind the old saying about a “dagger in a smile.”

“I rejoice that on 18 December the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution calling upon States to institute a moratorium on the use of the death penalty,” said the Pope, at which point I presume the EU representatives smiled appreciatively and murmured their congratulations to each other. They also probably completely missed the second half of the sentence, which was the good part with the stab at the EU’s hypocrisy: “And I earnestly hope that this initiative will lead to public debate on the sacred character of human life.”

The post-Christian West is a funny thing. For all of its efforts to abolish morality and any notion of sin from the public square, it just can’t seem to shake that medieval notion of an objective right and wrong. The best it can seem to do is get all muddle-headed about what right and wrong are.

For instance, there’s a lot of chatter in “progressive” papers and parliaments these days about making it legal for a doctor to prescribe barbiturates to a “patient”, so that he knock himself off. As I understand it, this is supposed to be the newest addition to the ever growing catalogue of human rights. But at the same time, in the very same papers and parliaments, there is a very successful movement working to completely outlaw smoking, “because smoking kills.” The understood implication is that killing yourself is wrong; but I’m not sure how that jives with this newfound human right to down a fatal dose of barbiturates. While I’m no fan of cigarettes (I’m more of a pipe and cigar guy myself), show me a cigarette and a syringe of barbiturates and I’ll take the cigarette over the drugs any day of the week, because I know which one kills.

Fact is, for all of our talk about the right to life and human dignity, in the West we’re all about killing these days. We’re all about killing ourselves: and, judging by the widespread show of support for men like Canada’s Robert Latimer, who murdered his handicapped daughter out of “mercy”, it’s becoming increasingly fashionable to kill other people.

Then, of course, there’s the refuse of abortion – the millions of fetuses annually that are chopped up and tossed in the dumpster for the landfill. I know. I know that the fetus is supposed to not be a human person, and therefore everything’s kosher. But this is just another example of the sort of muddle-headedness I’m talking about. Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation would have us treat our pet hamsters more humanely than we treat our unborn children, human or not. Even if we choose not to define the fetus as human, it’s certainly a living creature; so it seems that the least we can do is treat it as decently as we treat other living creatures. But I’ve seen no “save the fetuses” campaign from Greenpeace, the WWF, or any other animal rights groups.

John McAdams defends the death penalty because he believes that it will save innocent lives; his mistake, however, is to think that the West cares any more for innocent lives than it does for the guilty. Sometimes, in fact, things seem quite the opposite – that we’re in favor of killing all sorts of people, just so long as they’re innocent.

In the West life is a right, and life is sacred, just as long as the life we’re talking about is guilty of a capital crime, or incapable of either innocence or guilt (your pet hamster). That is the message being broadcasted to the world by the West’s obsession with abolishing the death penalty, and its simultaneous insistence on vociferously protecting and championing abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia.

This is quite the paradox. It is also the paradox that Poland dared to protest back in September when the EU was proposing a World Day against the Death Penalty. The Polish government called down upon itself all sorts of outrage when it suggested that perhaps a World Day against the Death Penalty wasn’t all that productive, since the EU had already outlawed capital punishment, but that a world day dedicated to the sanctity of all human life could do a great deal of good.

“We think that when anybody wants to discuss a problem of death in the context of the law it is also worth to discuss on euthanasia and abortion in this context,” said a spokesman for the Polish delegation.

“I think it is hypocritical on the part of the EU to promote abortion, destructive lifestyles and euthanasia and at the same time to pretend to care about the right to life in only one case – death penalty,” concurred Krzysztof Bosak, of the League of Polish Right (LPR), who is also a member of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.

And so for months on end Poland endured being labeled medieval, and backwards, and reactionary and bloodthirsty. The World Day against the Death Penalty was passed when the new Polish government came into power, allowing the liberal media and politicians to feel warm and fuzzy inside for having fought so hard to protect the right to life and human dignity.

Pope Benedict, however, yesterday reminded the EU that they have not gone far enough-not nearly far enough. It is good, he suggested, that the EU recognizes that human beings have dignity, and that it protects that dignity by abolishing the death penalty. But even still, he added, the former Polish government was perfectly right. A World Day against the Death Penalty makes no sense without a world day for the sanctity of all human life. We all look forward to the day when the EU, and every nation across the world, will recognize such a day.