Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis: Buddhism and the Death Penalty

World shocked by U.S. execution of Troy Davis
By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
updated 11:45 AM EST, Thu September 22, 2011

London (CNN) -- Troy Davis may be dead, but his execution Thursday in the American state of Georgia has made him the poster boy for the global movement to end the death penalty.

World figures, including Pope Benedict XVI and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, human groups and commentators urged the execution to be halted -- but to no avail. On Wednesday Davis was put to death by lethal injection for the 1989 killing of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail despite doubts being raised over the conviction.

The Practical Buddhist Responds

Forget that there is no consistent science to say the death penalty deters anything. Forget that all but two or three big Western democracies have abandoned it (though many Buddhist countries still have it.) Forget that in the US it is disproportionately imposed on poor people of color. For the moment, forget the First Precept about the taking of life.

Remember this: if a society is going to kill its members as punishment or retribution for crimes, the only excuse can be is hot, passionate, indignant rage.  We are not gods and have no right to plan coldly to end a human life.

Imagine a father so angry that he hits his son for some infraction and makes the boy bleed.  A loving father will regret it and make amends not because he knows corporal punishment does not work or is universally condemned by mainstream psychology.  He will regret it because he loves his son and wants to teach him, not cause him to suffer.  

Imagine a father who waited and brooded for months over the son’s infraction, then coldly and carefully planned to smite him. Unforgiveable, right? Unforgiveable because passionless and love-less.

It’s not hard to understand how a primitive society might be shocked and horrified by the killing of a child, then in deep outrage kill the killer before sundown. Passion is no justification, but provides an understandable explanation. 
In some American states, we wait decades, dancing through appeals and writs endlessly, then finally killing a prisoner in the coldest and remorseless possible way.  It cannot be true vengeance since (except for a ruined few for whom it never ends) rage does not last for years and years. The rage that could explain killing is long gone.  All that is left is cool calculation and planning to kill: this cannot be justified and is ultimately impractical too. 

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