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February 3rd last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the execution of Ronald Ryan (1925 – 1967), the last man to be hanged in Australia. Since then, the general consensus has been that the death penalty constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment. Contrarily, however, it is the opinion of this author that the death penalty is not only just, but a key part of any justice system.
There are two main arguments against the death penalty. First, that it is an exceptionally expensive form of punishment. And second, that the death penalty leaves no room for non-posthumous exoneration.
The first argument is one of economics, not of morality or of justice. It does not argue that the death penalty is immoral, only that it is expensive. What this argument suggests is that a price tag can be placed on justice. That the most important factor determining a case is not whether justice is served, but how much money it will cost.
The way a society punishes murder is reflective of the value that society places on a human life. The life of a human being is not something that can have a time-based value placed upon it. It is something that has immeasurable value and purpose. The Norwegian mass-murderer, Anders Breivik, a man responsible for the death of seventy-seven people, received a sentence of just twenty-one years for his heinous crimes. A society that decides that the value of an individual’s life amounts to only one-hundred days is one that has no respect for the sanctity of life.
The second argument carries a great deal more weight. It is an undeniable fact that innocent people have, and continue to be, executed for crimes they did not commit. In the United States, prejudice against African Americans, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, and other people often meant that justice was not as blind as it should have been. Furthermore, in an era before DNA evidence, convictions were based upon less reliable physical evidence and eyewitness testimony. And such evidence naturally carried a higher rate of false convictions.
There are two problems with the innocence argument. First, the advent of DNA along with other advances in forensic science has meant that the possibility of executing an innocent person is very low. DNA may not be foolproof, but when combined with eyewitness testimony and additional physical evidence, it makes a guilty verdict all the more concrete.
Second, the innocence argument is not an argument against the death penalty. Rather, it is an argument against executing an innocent person. It only applies when the condemned man is not actually guilty of the crime he has been convicted of. What it does not address is how a person whose guilt is certain beyond all possible reasonable doubt ought to be treated. When an individual’s guilt is that certain the innocence argument no longer carries any weight.
There are two primary arguments for the death penalty. First, that there are crimes so heinous and criminals so depraved that the only appropriate response is the imposition of the death penalty. And second, that the death penalty is an essential aspect of a just and moral justice system.
That there are crimes so heinous, and criminals so depraved, that they deserve the death penalty is self-evident. Carl Panzram (1892 – 1930), a thief, burglar, arsonist, rapist, sodomite, and murderer, told his executioner: “hurt it up, you Hoosier bastard, I could kill a dozen men while you’re screwing around.” Peter Kürten (1883 – 1931), also known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf, told his executioner that to hear the sound of his own blood gushing from his neck would be “the pleasure to end all pleasures.” Finally, John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (1942 – 1994) was convicted of forcibly sodomising, torturing, and strangling thirty-three boys and young men. The question, then, is not whether or not any individual deserves the death penalty, it is whether or not the state should have the power to execute someone.
The answer to this question is undoubtedly yes. It is frequently forgotten, especially by humanitarians, that the key aspect of a criminal penalty is not rehabilitation or deterrence, but punishment.
In other words, what makes a justice system just is that it can convict a person fairly and impose on them a penalty that is commensurate with the nature and severity of the crime that person has committed. What separates the death penalty from extra-judicial murder is that the condemned person has been afforded all the rights and protections of law, including due process, a fair and speedy trial, the right to trial by jury, the presumption of innocence, and so forth, regardless of their race, religion, sexuality, or gender. When a sentence of death is imposed upon a murderer, it is not a case of an individual or group of individuals taking vengeance, but of a legitimate court of justice imposing a penalty in accordance with the law.
What makes the death penalty an integral part of any justice system is not that it constitutes a form of revenge (which it does not) or that it may deter other individuals from committing similar crimes (which it also does not). What makes it just is that constitutes a punishment that fits the crime that has been committed.
In 2015, the then-Presidential candidate, Donald Trump (1946 – ) called for a boycott of Starbucks after the famous coffee shop chain failed to include the words “Merry Christmas” on their annual Christmas cups. “Did you read about Starbucks?”, Trump asked a rally in Springfield, Illinois. “No more ‘Merry Christmas’ on Starbucks. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks.”
Two years later, Donald Trump, now President of the United States, doubled down on his pro-Christmas message. Speaking at a Christian Public Policy conference, the President stated:
“We’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word ‘Christmas’ because it’s not politically correct.”
“You got to department stores and they’ll say, ‘Happy New Year’, or they’ll say other things and it’ll be red, they’ll have it painted. But they don’t say it. Well, guess what? We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
The sentiment that there is a War on Christmas designed to push the religious holiday out of public consciousness carries a great deal of validity. Since 2000, the Becket Institute has listed the biggest Christmas scrooges in American public life, giving the worst offenders an ‘Ebenezer award.’
In 2000, city manager of Eugene, Oregon, Jim Johnson was given the Ebenezer Award after he issued a five-page memo banning Christmas trees from any “public space” in the city.
In 2011, the Ebenezer Award was given to the United States Post Office after they enforced a policy preventing people from singing Christmas carols on Government property. This decision stands in direct contradiction to Benjamin Franklin’s (1706 – 1790) (their founder) commandment to “always live jollily; for a good conscience is a continual Christmas.”
In 2014, the City of Sioux Falls was given the Ebenezer Award after they threatened to repaint and censor snowploughs that featured artwork celebrating the religious nature of Christmas.
In 2015, the Ebenezer Award was given to the Department of Veteran Affairs after they banned their employees at their Salem, Virginia facility from saying ‘Merry Christmas.’
The problem is not unique to the United States, either. During an interview with 2GB Radio, Peter Dutton (1970 – ), Australia’s minister for immigration and border protection, became incensed after a caller informed him that there had not been any Christmas carols in a performance at his grandchild’s school. The caller informed Dutton that the school in question, Kerdon State High School, had replaced the lyric “we wish you a Merry Christmas” with “we wish you a happy holiday.” Dutton replied: “You make my blood boil with these stories. It is political correctness gone mad and I think people have just had enough of it.”
I believe that the drive to remove the more traditional and religious aspects from holidays like Christmas and Easter is indicative of a larger attempt to abolish the influence of Christianity on society and culture.
The problem with this, needless to say, is that it is akin to chopping down a tree and still wishing to enjoy its fruits. It is not possible to enjoy the fruits of Western culture and civilisation when its ideological origins and overarching philosophical-cum-theological structures have been removed. Christianity and Western civilisation are inextricably linked. The poet, T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) wrote in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1943) that “to our Christian heritage we owe many things besides religious faith. Through it we trace the evolution of our arts, through it we have a conception of Roman Law which has done so much to shape the Western world, through it we have our conception of private and public morality.”
The War on Christmas is an attack on the very fabric of Western Civilisation. Christmas symbolises the central axiom our culture was built on: that the Universe was constructed to have a natural and moral order. The War on Christmas is not merely an attack of Judeo-Christian belief, nor is it merely an attack on Western culture, it is an attack upon truth itself. And the truth cannot prosper while those who believe it are unwilling to defend it.