Absolute and Absolve Come From the Same Root

Rivi once said to me, "No statement that general can ever possibly be true!" At the time, I was amused by the paradoxical quality of her claim; it was, of course, a statement in the most general terms possible, and therefore denied its own truth. Still, she had a point.

I am suspicious of generalizations, of absolutes in any form. I'm wary of religious rectitude, of political theorists and their perfect systems, of physicists who swear by the tangible reality of their theories, of all certainties and necessities, no matter how utter. I will not swear that something is always right or always wrong; "right" and "wrong" themselves are such contingent human contrivances that the possibility of exceptions to even their most general rules seems wholly plausible.

About two years ago, I turned this principle on myself and went rooting through my other principles, ripping out instances of undue certainty. Among the casualties was my confidence that the death penalty is always and invariably wrong. Not that I decided to endorse executions as the cure for all society's woes; I just concluded that, whatever else might be said against it, state-sponsored killing was not categorically forbidden by an invariable moral rule valid in all circumstances.

It's a shame, in the sense that such a rule is the single strongest argument against the death penalty as practiced in this country. It is the argument that brooks no argument. From William Lloyd Garrison to Randall Terry, absolutists have deployed their moral inflexibility as a tool of persuasion. But I think there is strength, too, in being able to maintain one's principled position in the face of honest debate without needing to rely on the artificial prop of the absolute.

What remains is a set of observations about the death penalty as it operates: who is killed, on what (slender) basis, and under what grotesque and arbitrary circumstances. To this, add the false promises -- of closure, of safety, of so much more -- with which executions distract a society from healthy responses to its crimes. And continue with the thought that of all the things Leviathan may do with the power placed in its hands by the people who constitute it, killing those people is surely one of the least defensible. Every execution is a murder in which we all share. (True, we all share in every murder, but with an execution, the chain of culpability is more direct). But that, in itself, will still not prove that they are per se indefensibly wrong and necessarily, intrinsically, forbidden forever and always.

For now, my thoughts are on criminals and death because of the D.C. sniper. The sniper and his unknown dread are the toughest test I can remember for my stance on the death penalty. The clues are few and scattered, but what few details we have all point in the same direction: heartless, calculating depravity combined with contempt for humanity and personal greed.

In his way, I think he qualifies as distinctly more evil than the 9-11 hijackers. They were certainly a lesson in the gross evil worked by absolutism, but at the same time they were willing to die for their twisted principles and they connected their killings to making the world a better place (for a certain narrow and subjective version of "better"). The sniper's obscure motivations seem to lie somewhere between pure, murderous misanthropy and ugly opportunism.

You also have to admit that the death penalty would appear to be a much better deterrent to would-be suburban snipers than to would-be homicdal suicides. So if they catch the sniper -- and we all hope that "if" is really a "when" -- I would find it harder to make the claim that he should live than to make such a claim on behalf of an African-American teen convicted by an all-white jury on the testimony of unreliable police informant for a convenience-store robbery gone wrong. Much harder.

Hard enough that I'd say he should be killed, or fall silent and be counted among those silently acquiescing? I don't know. There are terrible political calculations involved; a principle maintained in the tough cases is worth more than one that only pops up to weigh in when it doesn't matter. Can I say that I'd be opposed to his execution, but less opposed? Will anyone understand me if I do? Our political discourse is so attenuated that such gradations of meaning are mistaken for waffling, or for nothing at all. But what else is there to say? The death penalty is wrong, just not absolutely wrong. And the sniper is evil.

But not absolutely evil.