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.

Liberty versus Security

If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide, you shouldn’t even be here
You’ve had your chance, now we’ve got the mandate
If you’ve changed your mind, I’m afraid it’s too late
We’re concerned you’re a threat
You’re not integral to the project

Pet Shop Boys, “Integral”

In the last decade, as the “War on Terror” has been raged, first by the Bush and then the Obama administrations, the question of the balance between liberty and security has been a fierce one.  This is not a new debate, though.  The questions and controversies surrounding increased governmental powers and limitations on civil rights date back to the early years of our nation.

In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed into law as a reaction to the French Revolution’s bloody Reign of Terror.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus.  Although Lincoln is regarded as one of the greatest of the U.S. Presidents, this is an action that a century and a half later is still hotly debated among historians.  And during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast within internment camps.

So the continuing reactionary policies of certain politicians in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, although disheartening, are anything but unprecedented.  On December 31, 2011, Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act.  One provision of the law is that it affirmed the ability of the federal government to indefinitely imprison without trial any individuals, including American citizens.  Many have regarded this as just the latest trampling of the Bill of Rights by an increasingly unchecked government.  Myself, I was very disappointed that Obama signed this into law.  Disappointed, but not surprised.  It is an election year, after all, and he obviously did not want to appear weak on national security.  Whatever else he is, Obama is a shrewd individual who wants to gain a second term as President.  He is certainly not the first politician to forsake his stated principles in order to court votes.

More recently, here in New York City, it has been revealed that the NY Police Department has been conducting extensive surveillance of Muslim-American businesses and students, even going so far as to follow them out-of-state.  There are concerns that the NYPD is not acting on any legitimate leads or suspicions, but rather engaging in racial profiling.  The Associated Press’s revelation of these actions has resulted in criticism not just from the Muslim community, but from officials in New Jersey and Washington DC.  The FBI seems to be regarding the NYPD’s lone wolf tactics as having both damaged several of their own investigations, as well as harming relations between the government and the Muslim community.  Unsurprisingly, despite all of the criticism, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have imperiously refused to back down, retorting that their actions were both legal and necessary to save lives from possible terrorist threats.

It appears that it is within our nature to all-to-quickly give in to fear, to be ready to forsake our liberty for a comforting feeling of security.  We should do well to remember the words often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, namely that those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.

Please keep in mind that I am not claiming that legitimate threats to our security do not exist.  They do, and we need to safeguard against them.  But in the process, it is crucial that we do not destroy the very freedoms we are fighting to safeguard.  There must ever be a balance between liberty and security.  Too much of one extreme or the other can lead to devastating consequences.