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.

6 comments:

  1. This is an excellent piece. You make many good points and provided a lot for me to think about as far as my own views.

    As a member of Consistent Life, I am sorry to hear that you find the phrase annoying. Let me say just a few words about my own position.

    Although many of my colleagues are pacifists who believe all violence, without exception, is wrong, I am not one of them. I think abortion is inherently wrong but do not think the death penalty or war are inherently wrong. If, however, you are a pro-lifer who thinks the state needs to stop executing people and thinks that--however justified war might be in theory--actual wars the state has fought or is fighting are wrong and that foreign policy needs to become less militaristic, where are you supposed to go? Who are you supposed to join? There are not a whole lot of political/ideological options or groups out there for you. If there are ones that do not involve equating abortion with these other, more ambiguous forms of violence, I would love to hear about them.

    OK, I am ready for my margarita now.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, John. Please don't take my annoyance with the phrase "consistent life" personally. (Unless you came up with it.) ;-)

      As a former liberal pro-lifer, I sympathize with your dilemma. But I'm reminded of my gut feeling when I see groups like Democrats for Life: you're fighting for the wrong team. Democrats are the party of death, and unfortunately most anti-war/anti-death penalty types are utopianists.

      There's a reason why most pro-lifers are politically aligned with people who believe in a pragmatic foreign policy and the death penalty. These people - call them conservatives for the sake of argument - lean more towards individual liberty than "the common good." Believing of course that a free society is the most common good we can get, warts and all.

      Believing in a limited government usually means believing the state DOESN'T have a right to mandate every aspect of a person's life. But most conservatives/libertarians DO believe the state has a right to the very basic things we are supposed to expect of a state, i.e. protecting the life, liberty, and property of citizens. In which case we see outlawing abortion, fighting wars, and executing people as legitimate state powers.

      There are lots and lots of Catholics, tho, who have the same viewpoint as you. So while politically in the U.S. you might have difficulty picking a candidate, you should have plenty of company in the pews at Mass. I, for one, as I outlined above, think pacifism among modern Christians is a dangerous trend. I believe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while colossal strategic failures, were thoroughly justified. If we were truly civilized and truly Christian we would be killing lots and lots of Islamists right now. Again: "Kindness to the wicked is cruelty to the righteous."

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    2. Thanks for your thoughts, John. Please don't take my annoyance with the phrase "consistent life" personally. (Unless you came up with it.) ;-)

      As a former liberal pro-lifer, I sympathize with your dilemma. But I'm reminded of my gut feeling when I see groups like Democrats for Life: you're fighting for the wrong team. Democrats are the party of death, and unfortunately most anti-war/anti-death penalty types are utopianists.

      There's a reason why most pro-lifers are politically aligned with people who believe in a pragmatic foreign policy and the death penalty. These people - call them conservatives for the sake of argument - lean more towards individual liberty than "the common good." Believing of course that a free society is the most common good we can get, warts and all.

      Believing in a limited government usually means believing the state DOESN'T have a right to mandate every aspect of a person's life. But most conservatives/libertarians DO believe the state has a right to the very basic things we are supposed to expect of a state, i.e. protecting the life, liberty, and property of citizens. In which case we see outlawing abortion, fighting wars, and executing people as legitimate state powers.

      There are lots and lots of Catholics, tho, who have the same viewpoint as you. So while politically in the U.S. you might have difficulty picking a candidate, you should have plenty of company in the pews at Mass. I, for one, as I outlined above, think pacifism among modern Christians is a dangerous trend. I believe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while colossal strategic failures, were thoroughly justified. If we were truly civilized and truly Christian we would be killing lots and lots of Islamists right now. Again: "Kindness to the wicked is cruelty to the righteous."

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  2. Thanks for your reply, Kristen. And no, I did not coin the term "consistent life," so I do not take your annoyance personally. (I did invent Tamagouchis, though, so perhaps that is a strike against me. :P)

    I had not thought of being pro-life, pro-death penalty, and in favor of a foreign policy that involves making war as being commonly connected by the state's obligation to protect citizens, but I can see that common thread, now that you mention it. Certainly they all involve trying to protect the innocent from harm, whether from an abortionist, a criminal, or a foreign enemy of some kind. I definitely believe in trying to protect the innocent from these kinds of threats and, as I said, I think that executing people and waging war can be justified in principle as a way to protect people. It's the question of practice where (I think) we differ.

    I need to mull all this over some more (if you have any other writings, by you or anyone else, you would recommend, please let me know). I will mention one thing, though: you commented that the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars were colossal strategic failures. I agree with that, and, while I am not a pacifist, I think a big problem with actual wars is that they are often strategically unwise--they do not realize their intended goal. This is not the only reason why I oppose war in practice, but it is a very important concern.

    Anyway, thanks again for your reply and your original post. I do not think we are likely to see eye to eye on the death penalty and war, but I appreciate your thoughts on the subject--and we can always agree on being 100% pro-life, which is great.

    (Oh, we also can agree on one other thing--and this is a tangent, but I have to mention it, because I am very grateful when this comes up in your writings: you are one of the very few people my age I have encountered who still cares about the evils of communist regimes. This is something that I have studied for a long time and feel incredibly strongly about, even though most people think it is ancient history. It's not ancient history to me, though, and I continue to study the myriad atrocities committed by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, et al. It drives me up the wall when people whitewash these regimes or reflexively attribute problems with the United States to "capitalism" or "corporations." Mind you, I am not a huge fan of capitalism or corporations, but to think that states that have socialist economic systems inevitably become great places to live flies completely in the face of all this sorry history. So, thanks for keeping the flame alive in that regard. OK, end of tangent.)

    Having downed my virtual margarita, I will now shut up. See you around the web.

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  3. um...can you give me a heads-up on the weather ending thing? it's just...i get migraines sometimes when the barometric pressure shifts too drastically? (yeah, that last one went up at the end like a question - i went there.)

    also i'm fairly confident i had a bad case of utopianism in like the 10th grade. *shudders*

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  4. My sentiments exactly. I'm also on the fence. Especially because as I am Polish and I am aware of difficult Polish history. When Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany, there existed the Polish Underground State and yes, people who were in the Home Army were doing death penalties on traitors. And yes, they were heroes, fighting for freedom of Poland and for safety of Polish people.

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