I personally decry the death penalty as barbaric, believing that society's progress should enable us to move beyond this form of punishment. However, I am in the minority of Americans, and especially in the case of mass murderers, in a position of being vehemently rejected by most people. As the case of James Holmes, the man who killed 12 people in Aurora, CO, arises, I am continually questioning myself over this belief. Does this man deserve to continue his life? Should the penalty I consider "cruel and unusual" and a violation of the right to life apply to a man who tore others' lives from them? In this case, I believe that if we look at the big picture of punishment in society, we can come to an answer that will take us beyond temporary feelings.
Since the Enlightenment, society has debated whether the death penalty should be abolished in the name of the improvement and progress of society. Cesare Beccaria's On Crimes and Punishments was a prominent Enlightenment work that criticized the death penalty, and the Second French Republic later followed his advice by abolishing capital punishment. Today, it seems that progress would have rendered historical abolition of the death penalty quaint. However, out of Canada, Australia, and all of Europe except Belarus, we are the only ones who still keep the death penalty, in the company of China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and North Korea.
Despite our estrangement from the rest of the Western world, of which we are the leader, the death penalty continues to be extremely popular in the United States. According to a Gallup poll taken in early 2013, 63% of Americans support the death penalty. Even 47% of liberals support it. Famously, Michael Dukakis's support of the death penalty, even for the hypothetical murder of his wife, earned him the reputation of an elitist liberal. Bill Clinton even supported it, backing up his support with executions done in Arkansas.
I find it ironic that, as the most right-wing and Christian of the Western nations, we give the least help to the poor, support such policies as the death penalty, and have few regulations on guns. Furthermore, as I mentioned, the death penalty should violate cruel and unusual punishment and the right to life, which conservatives would take note of if they cared as much about the Constitution as the claim to. However, whenever we seem to have reached a point where we can move beyond the death penalty, someone like James Holmes enters the picture and changes our opinions.
As part of his court case, capital punishment for Holmes is the goal of the prosecution. As is to be expected, they will get as much as they can in punishment for the defendant. However, the question then becomes whether individual instances of violence or personal feelings should impact our opinion on the death penalty. As a matter of policy, like Dukakis, I believe that the death penalty is wrong and that it would be a move towards a more perfect union if we abolished it. But I wonder if killing 12 innocent people deserves the worst punishment of them all.
My conclusion is that, despite committing one of the worst crimes possible, Holmes should not get the death penalty. Does he deserve it? Maybe so. Will life in prison be a waste of money? Yes. But what is more important than these questions is the idea of progress. I am posting on a liberal blog and I am a liberal, therefore I see it as hypocritical that I would stand in favor of something that contrasts with my beliefs on the death penalty as it fits in society.
This also brings up the question of what he deserves. Based on traditional "eye for an eye" policies, he does deserve to taste his own medicine. Nevertheless, concurrently with the abolition of the death penalty, there must be a change to this policy of justice because an eye for an eye is an ineffective policy. For example, if Holmes killed 12 people, we cannot kill him 12 times. Therefore, in theory the death penalty would not even complete the traditional justice of the past, which is why we have to redefine justice.
My conclusion is that we cannot give Holmes the death penalty because it is based upon a barbaric society in which traditional justice and myopia reign. If we move beyond this ineffective eye for an eye justice and lust for death to a vision of a more perfect society, progress will no longer be limited in this country. I would contend that, while family and friends of the victims have the right to be angry, we cannot base our policy off of vindication. Vindication, and temporary visceral politics, are part of what has limited society. I feel empathy for the victims and their loved ones, if empathy for their grief is possible, but I still believe what I believe.