In the wake of Saturday’s horrific attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, President Trump suggested the time has come to “bring the death penalty into vogue.” He explained, “When people do this, they should get the death penalty. Anybody that does a thing like this to innocent people that are in temple or in church … they should pay the ultimate price.” On this question and others, Trump displays a moral clarity in short supply these days.
Capital punishment has fallen out of favor in recent years because the public now takes an almost exclusively rehabilitative view of punishment. Activists and elected officials speak almost exclusively of “rehabilitating” rather than punishing criminals. And rehabilitation is a worthy goal, but it isn’t the exclusive end of criminal justice, which likewise seeks retribution, deterrence, and the defense of society. On every count, particularly at a time when technological advancement facilitates the identification of perpetrators and exoneration of those wrongly accused, the moral case for the death penalty has never been stronger.
By definition the death penalty protects society from an offender’s further aggression. Opponents of capital punishment argue life imprisonment offers virtually the same protection to society, although the availability of pardons and parole make execution the surer option, to say nothing of the danger imprisoned criminals pose to other inmates. (Just ask Whitey Bulger.) As a deterrent, capital punishment saves lives, as the work of Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker, economist Isaac Erhlich, and many others show; the swifter the punishment, the more lives saved.
While the rehabilitative effect of execution is debatable, capital punishment remains highly effective as a method of retribution, which is not to be confused with revenge. When you inflict harm on someone for an injury he has inflicted on you, you exact revenge, typically prompted by intense emotion, which is why we must remind ourselves that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Retribution, on the other hand, is a restoration of the order of justice disturbed by the criminal’s action. Not only is retributive punishment perfectly just, but indeed punishment must primarily be retributive if it is to be just at all. If someone has done nothing wrong, he should suffer no punishment whatsoever, whether for rehabilitation or deterrence or the protection of society.
Any legitimate system of criminal justice must first concern itself with justice. If just punishments also deter, rehabilitate, or protect, all the better. On Saturday morning, a lucid man walked into synagogue and slaughtered 11 Americans while they worshipped. Only God can judge, but the civil authority can arrange the meeting, and it should.