Some Christmas Thoughts, 2007: the Death Penalty and other matters

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If you go to church this Christmas, you will very likely hear, either as a passing remark, or even as the topic of the sermon, some lament about how secularized, commercialized, bland, and ultimately faceless the season has become. News announcers hover over the pulse of the retail sector like a doctor in an old movie, and note the undue attention presidential candidates are now claiming from an harrassed public (who would presumably rather get on with their shopping) with survey-generated principles, sniping at rivals, and tasteless (I mean really awful!) messages pandering to Christmas sentiment, as each strives to show he or she is the Best Christian. Two American shibboleths are now colliding—the general practice of watering traditional customs down to the point that no sect can take offence and the apparently vital need of Americans to have a devout Christian as the chief executive of their government. Whether for you this day means the Nativity of Jesus Christ, a jolly Saturnalia, a solar festival, or an excuse to clear out for Barbados, it naturally conveys a sense of closure and new beginnings, and it is customary to include a moment of reflection in the celebrations…no, the spirit of Christmas is a dangerous topic, I think, and I shall leave it to the professionals, saying simply that I find it an especially beautiful festival which atavistically puts us in mind of beliefs and rituals extending far back into the distant past, far beyond Tiberius or Augustus.

I had hoped to celebrate the season with reviews of two excellent recent recordings of Handel’s Messiah, but circumstances made this impossible. Messiah properly belongs to Holy Week in any case. (A scriptural oratorio of the sort could escape the seasonal ban on theatrical entertainments which prevailed at the time.) What’s more, many people may have had their Messiah already at one of the excellent performances in Boston or New York, or Hanover, New Hampshire, where The Handel Society of Dartmouth College just celebrated its bicentennial with a performance of Messiah under Helmut Rilling. In any case the 2006 recording by the Dunedin Consort under John Butt and the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2007 release under Sir Colin Davis, each very different from the other, are both at the top of their categories, and are absolute musts for any musical person. (Look for a full review soon, certainly in time for Holy Week!) In fact, Sir Colin and the LSO have been busy with Christmas recordings: this year they have also released Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ, another recording I recommend highly. (Availlable together with Messiah and Haitnk’s excellent Beethoven Symphonies as a special Christmas offer.) If you enjoy the now almost unheard-of luxury of being able to go out to a record store and buying them, by all means do so. Otherwise the SACD/CD hybrid discs are available for purchase in the Berkshire Bookshop. For that matter, all can be downloaded from the LSO Live (more precisely iTunes Plus) or Linn Records sites. Whilst the LSO downloads are slightly compressed, Linn Records, one of the top audiophile labels, offers both CD quality downloads as well as uncompressed duplicates of the studio master, pretty much the very best digital reproduction possible.

But before we all sink into the warm atavism of Christmas for whatever few days or weeks our work will permit us, we should think of another atavism which haunts American society rather more than most others: capital punishment. The one demographic the presidential candidates feel free to offend—the leading ones, at any rate—are prisoners on death row, who of course can’t vote. A recent editorial in the New York Times observed that two significant advances towards the abolition of this obsolete, barbarous punishment aroused only feeble attention in the United States.

First the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution for a global moratorium of the death penalty 104 to 54. This nonbinding resolution is basically symbolic, but it is the first to pass the General Assembly and is therefore historic and a potent symbol marking a step towards a future without the death penalty. The shame is that the United States, as one can only expect, voted against the resolution, joining itself with Myanmar, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Iran, China, Pakistan, Sudan and Iraq.

Second, Governor Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey signed into law a bill abolishing the death penalty in that state, the first such bill to be passed since the Supreme Court allowed its resumption in 1976. Of course this is good news, and important, even though the state of New Jersey has not carried out an execution since 1963. With the Supreme Court considering the legality of lethal injection, it is a sign that the death penalty may be on its way out in the United States, a country where it certainly has no place, whatever its supporters may say.

Of course the death penalty has many supporters. An NPR interviewer asked the sponsor of the bill, New Jersey State Sen. Ray Lesniak, whether he had considered the consequences of his action, considering that opposing the death penalty was certainly “no vote-getter.” He answered that it was a matter of conscience for him, and that he believed he had to go through with it and deal with the consequences later. Lesniak said, implying that his support for the death penalty in 1982 was a political expedient, “I had a spiritual conversion to a belief that centers on the release of anger, resentment and the need for revenge. Relieved of those emotions, I was able to conclude that governments should not be deciding who should live and who should die, and that justice is served by replacing the death penalty with life without parole.” This statement is interesting, because it reflects an inner change in the Senator’s moral consciousness and suggests that the unacceptability of capital punishment is a truth best known by the heart, although there are many rational arguments against it as well, for example those cited on the site of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. For a properly antiseptic discussion visit NPR’s interview with two academic experts from both sides of the issue. If you put this together with what has recently been said about what constitutes torture, you will get an idea, I suppose, of contemporary ethics, or at least one unedifying aspect of it.

This, I believe, takes us closer to the core of the issue than the hair-splitting which supports the opposing view, that the death penalty “saves lives.” (Statistical and other evidence is so ambiguous that it can be used to support both sides.) This is the view of George W. Bush, who, as governor of Texas, presided over 152 executions in six years, or approximately two per month. During the 2000 campaign he said, “I do [believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime], that’s the only reason to be for it. I don’t think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge. I don’t think that’s right. I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people’s lives.” Bush’s dictum has become the rallying point of supporters of the death penalty in public debate. At least the good president rejects the other popular argument for the death penalty, that justice is not complete without it, that the relatives of a victim have a right to the comfort of knowing that the ultimate price has been paid for what they have suffered indirectly. Apparently this eye-for-an-eye mentality is the belief Senator Lesniak has left behind.

One could go further and enter a debate about Biblical support for the death penalty, as some members of the religious right have done, although most Christian religions oppose it. Theoretically both the Jewish and Roman Catholic religions accept the death penalty as a deterrent, but its application is so stringent that it is all but ruled out. Maimonides said, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae and the current Roman Catholic catechism say that the death penalty is justified only if it “is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” In practice the Roman Catholic Church and many Jews have been among the most active opponents of the death penalty. In fact a significant role in the U. N. resolution was played by the Community of San Egidio (St. Giles), a Catholic organization initiated by a young high school student in 1968.

Especially ludicrous is the idea that Americans need the death penalty to be protected from terrorism. The destruction of the World Trade Center was a suicide mission, wasn’t it? Didn’t Zacarias Moussaoui show his eagerness to be executed—”to die in a battle […rather] than in a jail on a toilet,” as he said to the court. Do Americans need to execute people just to feel safe?

As I mentioned, there has been unconscionably little celebration in this country, although the smile on Governer Corzine’s face as he signed the bill was a celebration in itself. The Times editorial observed that by contrast in Italy, which has opposed the death penalty with admirable conviction and energy, according to recent custom “the Colosseum, where Christians were once fed to lions,* [was bathed] in golden light.” It is pity that the United States has chosen to join countries like Iran, China, and Myanmar and turned its back on the Judeo-Christian teaching which has historically occupied a place close to its ethical core. The United States has made much of taking the moral high ground in the past, but actions like the war in Iraq, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, New Orleans, illicit wiretapping and many other policies of the current government have forfeited any claim to moral leadership in the world. Fortunately the world can find moral examples not only in Italy, but in the humanitarian and peace-making work of countries like Ireland and Norway.

Christmas traditionally invites a spirit of rejoicing, as in the verse from Zechariah the cantankerous librettist Charles Jennens mustered for Handel to set to music:

“Rejoice greatly O Daughter of Sion, shout, O Daughter of Jerusalem, behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is the Righteous Saviour; and he shall speak peace unto the Heathen.” (Zech. 9.9-10)

And for once, as Governor Corzine clearly saw, there actually is something to rejoice about. If Americans have no time to think about this, perhaps they can think about their collective moral standing this Christmas, lest Guantanamo, like the Colosseum, be venerated as a holy place one day.

*This is basically untrue, a late belief, promoted by Pope Pius V (1566-72) a few years after the Council of Trent. Most of the human deaths were gladiators, and even they were often spared, being properties as valuable as Peyton Manning or Michael Schumacher. Presumably the New York Times fact checkers let this one go, because it happened too long ago really to matter. If for most Americans ancient history begins with the Clinton administration, when does it begin for the NYT editors?

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