Capital punishment and the September 11th trial

There was an interesting article in the New York Post on May 14th (I don’t normally read the Post, since I think it’s a sensationalistic rag full of right wing propaganda, but a co-worker of mine buys it for the Sports section, so I occasionally glance through his copy when I’m bored).  The headline read “Husband of 9/11 victim goes to Gitmo to spare plotters from death sentence.”

On September 11, 2001 Blake Allison lost his wife Anna in the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center.  Mr. Allison has a long-held opposition to the death penalty.  Despite his deeply tragic loss, he has chosen adhere to those principles.  He has traveled to Guantanamo Bay to ask the military tribunal to spare the lives of the al-Qaeda conspirators who are on trial.

Keep in mind, Allison is under no illusions that the six defendants now indicted as the 9/11 masterminds have in any way reformed or will ever express remorse.  He recognizes that they are extremely dangerous fanatics who would repeat their actions in a heartbeat.  He very much wishes to see them brought to justice for their crimes.  But he feels that it is wrong to take another human being’s life, and that the terrorists should instead be sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole.

I have long been opposed to capital punishment.  This has not been out of any particular sympathy for convicted murderers.  Rather, my opposition is two-fold:

First, I believe that a close examination will reveal that there are deep flaws in the criminal justice system that have led to numerous individuals who were innocent being falsely convicted and sentenced to death.  It was only through lengthy appeals that the majority of these injustices have come to light.  And we have no way of knowing with complete certainty that not a single innocent person has ever been executed in the United States.

Second, the aforementioned appeals process is expensive and time-consuming, a waste of taxpayer money and court resources.  Some might argue that the simplest solution is to eliminate all of those costly appeals.  But doing that leads right back to the first problem, namely that innocent people are sometimes convicted of crimes they did not commit.  And without appeals, these errors would most likely never be uncovered.

Capital punishment is irreversible.  If a mistake is made, it is impossible to return a person to life once their innocence is established two or three decades later.  No, they are obviously gone for good.  That is, in my mind, a very good reason to abolish the death penalty.

But can you make an exception?  What if a crime is so horribly depraved, the guilt of the defendant established beyond a shadow of a doubt, the gleeful lack of remorse on the part of the criminal an absolute affront to society?  What then?

It is a virtual certainty that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his co-defendants are guilty of planning the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of nearly three thousand innocent people.  They have never denied it, instead embracing their horrible crimes.  They have asked to be executed, to be made martyrs to their twisted cause.  One could easily make a passionate, compelling argument that if anyone in this world deserves to die, it is these men.

I keep thinking, though, that once you make one exception, you slowly but surely start edging towards the proverbial slippery slope.  Where do you draw the line, define the point when a crime becomes so horrible that the culprit is deserving of the death penalty?  Is it even possible to make that distinction?

I recall when Timothy McVeigh was executed in June 2001, for carrying out the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, murdering 168 people.  On the one hand, I certainly did not mourn his death.  On the other, I could not help but wonder if it might have been better to have given him a life sentence, because of that aforementioned slippery slope.  In addition, when you think about it, to have left him to live out the rest of his days in a tiny cell, never again to know freedom is, in a way, a fate that can be seen as a fate worse than death.

Some might also argue that we should not extend any sort of mercy to the terrorists who are on trial because, if the tables were turned, they would gladly see us dead without a second thought.  I keep thinking, though, that it is not enough merely to defeat an enemy.  We also must show that we are better them them, that we aspire to higher moral standards.

Another question to ponder, and it has already been raised by others: by executing Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his associates, are we not giving them what they want, turning them into martyrs whose deaths will emblazon their followers throughout the globe?  Perhaps it is better to give them a life sentence in a maximum security prison.  That way, they are deprived of their freedom for the rest of their natural lives, society is protected from them, and they are denied the chance to posthumously rally supporters to their cause.

All of that said, I do have to acknowledge one thing, though.  I really admire Blake Allison for maintaining his stance against the death penalty even after the horrible loss of his wife.  It could have been so very easy for him to give in to grief and hate.  So I honestly cannot say how I myself would feel, how much my opinion on capital punishment might change, if someone close to me was murdered.  There but for the grace of God go I.

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