Thursday, March 5, 2015

Abortion, Capital Punishment, and Other Light-Hearted Topics to Discuss Over Margaritas

From now on if this photo appears at the top of a blog post, you know it's gonna be super cereal.

A few weeks ago I went to a Consistent Life conference in Austin to give a talk on pro-life feminism with Destiny of New Wave Feminists. It was a good talk. We had a great time and met some great people. We showed our satirical videos to a roomful of shocked people, many of whom laughed, two of whom scowled throughout our entire presentation. Whatever. Good times.

Afterward I heard Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking, speak about the death penalty. She is the nun famously portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the film based on her book. Then Abby Johnson spoke about her experience working at Planned Parenthood. Several times, she said that if one was anti-abortion, being anti-capital punishment was a "no-brainer," and other remarks to that effect.

Apparently I have no brain, because I'm not against the death penalty. I'm also not for it. It is an issue I wrestle with. I've been on both sides of it over the years, and as I sit here today I can't honestly claim to have settled it for myself.

I think there are one or two excellent arguments against the death penalty that have been (and are) on the verge of persuading me. But nothing turns me off the anti-capital punishment movement faster than comparing capital punishment to abortion.

Even the phrase "consistent life" irks me, because it implies that being anti-abortion and pro-death penalty is morally or logically inconsistent. It isn't. Like I said: you can make a sound argument against capital punishment, but that does not make it comparable to abortion.

In one case, the victim in question is a person convicted of a capital crime, who by law has been provided at least one lawyer and may have a team of them. His lawyers have mounted a defense, paid for in many cases by the taxpayer. He has been fed and sheltered and given cable TV and access to a library and a gym by the taxpayer. He has been provided with a mandatory appeals process. His face is all over the news. People who don't know the names of his victims know his name. Priests and nuns and laymen are holding up his photo at vigils and praying for mercy, for his deliverance.

Quick! Name the police officer this guy was convicted of killing.

In the other case, the victim in question is nameless, faceless, unknown, with no advocate besides me and you. If she is lucky, there are people outside the clinic praying on the sidewalk for her and her mother. Maybe one of them approaches her mother and tries to change her mind. Or maybe the fellows in orange vests shield her from the "terrifying" onslaught of pamphlets and prayers. There is no lawyer, no appeal, no jury, and no judge but her mother, whose whim decides her fate. She dies nameless, disposed of as medical waste. Maybe one day her mother realizes what she's done and decides to memorialize her or name her. Or maybe she is never anything to anyone but a clump of cells.

And she never hurt anyone. She never killed anyone. She never even asked to exist. She died in what was supposed to be the safest place on earth: her mother's womb. And it was her own mother that chose it.

So let's make honest arguments, shall we? By all means, argue against the death penalty. But please: stop implying that any opinion on the one requires a certain opinion on the other. They are both legally sanctioned deaths; that is literally all they have in common.

And please stop implying that if you're pro-death penalty but anti-abortion it's because you haven't given it any thought. I've given it thought for years, thanks.

Overall, I have a problem with people hitching abortion to other issues. I think it takes away something from the fight against abortion, the single greatest human rights violation of our time. It especially bugs me when it gets tied in with ideas like "ending war."

During the Q&A session at the conference, a gentleman stood up and said with a straight face that he was an ex-soldier interested in "ending war." At that point I had about had it, and I turned to my friend Katie and said, "He may as well decide to end weather."

When the fight against abortion joins forces with the naivete, foolishness, and even danger inherent in utopian movements, it bothers me.

Let me just explain something real quick: you are not going to end war. War is conflict, and conflict is humanity. It is as inevitable as death, and seeing it as evil is, in a way, evil itself, in that it is contrary to human nature.

Working towards peace in particular instances can be totally fine and even commendable, although it is not always. What pacifists don't understand is that sometimes violence is the answer. Sometimes bad people have to be killed. It is tragic, but it is true.

This is an aspect of the anti-death penalty movement I don't understand. It is to me decidedly irreligious, even un-Christian, to feel that the worst thing we can do to somebody is kill him. And here is the biggest flaw in the Catholic argument against the death penalty: the Catechism tells us we are supposed to avoid it unless "it is the only possible way to defend human lives against the unjust aggressor." And everybody goes "Duh of course! Prison! We can just put people in prison! So we don't have to kill them! Hurray!"

The problem is, my dad worked in a prison for several years. He told me things. (Thankfully, not everything.) Prison is, quite simply, torture.

Also, ironically, the people we spare the death penalty are often (as you would imagine) the most violent and vile people in those prisons. Unlike death row inmates, who generally are more likely to keep to themselves because they're trying to win an appeal or otherwise save their own lives, the lifers without parole are often the most violent and depraved prisoners. Also ironically, they are the most likely to kill, rape, and otherwise terrorize other people in prison, because they have nothing else to lose.

So: we Catholics are so anti-violence and pro-human dignity we are going to spare the life of a killer, so he can go to prison and kill some more people? Is that what you call "defend[ing] human lives against the unjust aggressor?" Or do those victims matter less because they're prisoners?

Or should these prisoners concern us even more, morally speaking, since we are allowing them to be killed in order to spare the life of their killer? We are complicit in their deaths, deaths which apparently don't matter.

This is Danny Faulkner, the police officer Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing.
He was 26 when he died. His convicted killer is routinely asked to speak at the commencement ceremonies of major universities. Click here for more information on the case and to read a statement from his widow.

So: prison is torture. What is more merciful, more Christian? Sending a man to his Maker, or torturing him for life? But the rabid anti-torture people are just as anti-death penalty as you please. These are the across-the-board "non-violent" types who make zero sense to me. If any kind of violence against anyone ever is bad, what do we with our killers and rapists and pedophiles? Air-conditioned hotels with ocean views? I suppose we will pay for that from the same never-ending fountain of money that is going to provide "free" college and childcare and healthcare for everyone.

Again and again when thinking of these things I am reminded of David Mamet: "Kindness to the wicked is cruelty to the righteous."

The tragic view of human nature says that people are fallen in nature. People sin. And because they sin, it is not only dangerous but immoral to attempt to use human law to create paradise on earth. Tyrants are almost always tyrants in the name of the greater good.

Because people sin, and because utopia is impossible, and because you cannot protect people from their own free will, the best and most moral thing we can do is to allow people the liberty God gave them when he gave them that free will, barring basic restrictions against acts that harm ones neighbor. (This is called the Non-Aggression Principle. Google that shit.)

This will not lead to a perfect society. There is no such thing in this life. What it will lead to is the most liberty for the most people most of the time, which again is the best and most moral society to which we can aspire.

No matter how well-meaning or pro-life we are, we can't flirt with impossible goals like "ending war." They lead to utopianism, and utopianism leads to tyranny.

We also, no matter our individual feelings on the death penalty, need to stop mentioning it in the same breath with abortion. They are not the same thing. Even if you somehow have managed to convince yourself that victims of both are equally innocent, they certainly do not have equal protection or equal access to due process under law.

By all means, if your conscience calls you to oppose the death penalty, oppose it. But when we talk about abortion, let's focus on abortion. Let's focus on the victim who gets no lawyer, no jury, no judge, and no appeal. Let's focus on the unborn human for whom there will be no phone call from the governor, no stay of execution, and no mercy.