Controlling the Death of Others: A Memorial Day Reflection

The e-mail message conveyed a sense that Jonathan was fearful that his final paper of the semester would not be acceptable because it was not an academic study of the death penalty. He had given it to me at the end of our class, and now e-mailed a note to explain the reason for the style and content of his final paper.

Our class was concerned with Contemporary Issues of Race/Racism, and Jonathan had chosen to work with others who wanted to investigate arguments about the death penalty, and had done so enthusiastically. He had been a good contributor to our learning in class, participating well in two class presentations, always raising important questions, and commenting in relevant ways. He had openly shared his struggle with the issues involved, and we all knew that he had not come to any conclusion about what he thought and felt. I expected a fine paper, supported by research carefully noted in the style which academics like. Jonathan’s paper included no listing of sources studied, no footnotes, no endnotes, not citations from authorities which I knew he had been reading. His e-mail was an attempt to explain this lack, probably motivated in part by fear of a recriminating grade, and, I believe, an honest sharing of his struggle.

Jonathan’s explanation of his non-academic paper referred to a point in one class when, after expressing his inability to decide whether to be for or against the death penalty, he had been asked, “What does your gut tell you?” Although a philosophy major, that Pascalian question had never been posed for him in his college career. Subsequently when the moment came for him to begin writing his final paper he found himself with two piles of papers and books, one telling him that he should favor the death penalty, the other that he should oppose it. Lingering above the two piles was the question posed for his heart, and it beckoned him with undeniable strength. Keeping in mind all the material studied, Jonathan had to look within himself for resolution. His heart asked that next question, “What do you think and feel about human life?”

Poured into this non-academic paper was twenty years of reflection on some styles in Jonathan’s life which he was examining in the context of a decision about the life/death dimensions of capital punishment. He had to engage the arguments pro and con the death penalty; he had to understand the statistics and to measure their reliability, but finally was driven within himself to discover the essence of his view of life itself. He is still not sure where he will come out on the question of the death penalty, but the questions he must answer are now framed in a different and ultimate way.

A profound experience came for Jonathan in a simple exchange of maybe a total of twenty words, with Cardinal Law, at an Ehrmann Awards event sponsored by the Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty. Jonathan, with other students from our class, made it a point to meet and greet the Cardinal, who was there to receive the major award of the evening. He told the Cardinal that he was not sure yet where we stood on the issue. The profound simplicity of the Cardinal’s response will remain with Jonathan for his lifetime: “Violence begets violence.Violence begets violence! That may be all that it is necessary to say!”

At the international level there has been a reminder of this basic fact of life from Gandhi, as we witness the nation which he freed from colonialism now choosing to deny his truth as it enters proudly, insanely into the contest of controlling death by nuclear power. When the United States destroyed Hiroshima with an atomic bomb, Gandhi said, “The moral to be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter-bombs even as violence cannot be by counter-violence. Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence. Hatred can be overcome only by love. Counter-hatred only increases the surface as well as the depth of hatred.”

The words of the Cardinal, the words of Gandhi are simple words. They go right into the heart of the questions posed, both by nuclear threats of international deterrence in the name of any state, and by death penalty threats to individual life in the name of the state. It is impossible to prove that killing is wrong, by killing. It is also an immoral lie. Dear Jonathan, if I and you can get that fact into our hearts, there is hope.