Q: Was the Utah attorney general wrong to use Twitter, or religious language, to describe an execution? With all our technology, are we losing sight of our humanity? Should matters of life and death be reduced to a tweet?
A tweet trivializes the gravity of death by state sanction. It is wise to remember what Marshall McLuhan taught in the 1960s: “the medium is the message.” Using 140 characters to announce the death of a human being by state decree is to deny the history, the philosophical, moral and legal complexities of the moment; it is to rush too fast past religious prohibitions against retribution and to evade alternative reasoning.
The importance of McLuhan’s book “Understanding Media: the Extension of Man” published in 1964 is his insight that communication is influenced by the characteristics of the medium that conveys the message. The message and the medium are inextricably intertwined. What we hear on radio becomes different when we see it on television or read the text holding a book. Today, with the new forms of social media, the message becomes different when we send it in a tweet. An e-mail is different from a hard copy letter or a telephone conversation. McLuhan taught that a medium creates an environment. The question becomes: what are the structural changes that the medium will bring to society? Will new forms of media bring a mass age, a mess age, a massage, an anodyne that takes the edge off of life and allows us to tolerate the intolerable?
The state does not have the right and ought not to have the power to take from an individual what it cannot restore or for which it cannot compensate that individual. This is why the issue of capital punishment is considered a human rights issue. More countries in the world than not recognize this and have abolished capital punishment. It is considered a violation of the right to life provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Right requires signatories to agree not to carry out executions. The Conventions on the Rights of the Child prohibits execution of minors. Despite these international conventions, the United States ranks fifth in the world in the number of executions by the federal government and 35 states. China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are ahead of us in this regard.
People who support capital punishment think that it is a deterrent, that it affirms the value of human life by requiring the ultimate punishment for the offense of murder. The state ought to take just retribution for murder. Those opposed say that there is no evidence that capital punishment is a deterrent. The possibility of killing an innocent person is too high. In our society there is not equal justice before the law because too many poor people and people of color are not provided adequate legal representation. Moreover, capital punishment is a moral contradiction because it commits the very act for which it takes the life of the condemned.
People who support capital punishment say that there is religious justification for it: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. However, the Bible also teaches that God reserves vengeance for God’s self alone. Biblical wisdom says: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place to wrath for it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, said the Lord.” God does not need our help to draw the just relationship between act and consequence. God knows the inner workings of the heart, mind and soul of an individual better than any judge or jury.
In the case of Ronnie Lee Gardner, a man who had killed twice and was executed by a firing squad in Utah, we see a man who had been born to alcoholic parents, raised by an older sister 8 years his senior, molested by an older brother, a troubled teen committed to the Utah State Hospital and to the Utah State Industrial School. Several of his jurors said that had they been told about his troubled upbringing they would not have voted for the death penalty. Gardner’s life reveals the inadequacy of the social safety net for dysfunctional families and the reverberating harm that come from this failure. The state of Utah killed a man who it had failed when he was a child. This is the problem with retributive justice.
Restorative justice is a viable alternative to the justice of vengeance. According to the web site Restorative Justice Online: “Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.”
Three principles of restorative justice are: to restore those who have been injured, to allow those affected by the crime to participate in the response if they wish, and government’s role to preserve public order comes from building and maintaining a just peace.
Restorative justice puts the emphasis on the victim and not on the perpetrator. The perpetrator makes restitution as best he can for the crime. In this case, Ronnie Lee Gardner should have spent the rest of his life in prison without parole for these murders, but he also should have spent his time earning money to pay reparations to the families of the victims and or to society.
In a retributive just model, in our consideration of Ronnie Lee Gardner, we have forgotten the people he killed. The first was a bartender named Melvyn Otterstrom. His family wanted to see Gardner die. Their pain is palpable and understandable. His second victim was a lawyer named Michael Burdell. Burdell’s family argued against the death penalty for Gardner because Burdell was a pacifist opposed to the death penalty. In a restorative justice model, the family of Melvyn Otterstrom would probably not want to participate in a project that would allow Gardner to spend the rest of his life paying reparations either to them or to a charity of their choice, but such would probably be acceptable to the family of Michael Burdell.
When we look back at the history of capital punishment and see human beings condemned to drink poison or die the death of a thousand cuts or being fed to the lions or killed in gladiatorial combat or crucified or drawn and quartered or disemboweled or burned at the stake, or beheaded either by man or machine or hung or gassed or electrocuted or shot by firing squad or killed by lethal injection, we see no way that these practices are anything more than human brutality and barbarity, human crimes against itself in the name of justice. This is deeply sad and shameful.
We ought to ask God’s mercy not only on the soul of the person we execute, but on a society that permits this and then tells the news in 140 characters or less.