If Americans truly wish to break the culture of violence, they must first rise above their own instinct for retribution.
Last July, James Holmes walked into a premier screening of Batman: Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. He opened fire on the crowd killing 12 souls and wounding another 58. He offered no motive for his actions and has shown no remorse since. Understandably, many Americans want retribution. There is strong public demand for Holmes’ execution.
This would be a mistake. America suffers from a culture of violence — one that is in many ways responsible for the types of mass shootings seen in Aurora. While we often like to blame gun ownership and the entertainment industry, blame also lies in laws like the death penalty, which legitimize bloodlust and devalue the sanctity of human life. Law influences culture. Thus, executing James Holmes will only perpetuate the conditions that lead men to value pain over human life. It will not bring back the innocent lives lost.
I admit that the arguments favoring Holmes’ execution seem strong. Holmes deliberately murdered a dozen people and wounded scores more. He did so in such a way as to maximize the number of victims and minimize the danger to himself. He purchased multiple firearms, released a gas canister to confuse his victims, and chose a theater in a gun-free-zone to avoid the possibility of someone firing back. Had his gun not jammed, many more may have been killed.
In addition, the typical reservation — the possibility of executing an innocent man — does not apply. The police caught Holmes in the movie theater parking lot, still wearing his gas mask and bulletproof vest. He carried with him the weapons he used on the audience and he probably still smelt like the gas bomb he released in the theater. While many questions remain unanswered, the identity of the shooter is not one of them.
Americans, nevertheless, should leave the needle on the tray. Americans recognize that they suffer from a culture of violence; they also recognize that this culture is in part responsible for the types of shootings that took place in Aurora, Colorado. This has led to numerous calls for reform, some directed at the gun lobby, the rest directed at the entertainment industry for its glamorization of crime.
However, reform is not just the responsibility of others. Before we seek to overhaul entire corners of American life, we should turn our gaze inward and ask not only about our own willingness to devalue human life, but also about how we have codified that willingness into law.
It is well settled that law influences culture. Law sets the standard by which individuals measure social morality and it does so in ways far more pervasive than Hollywood pictures. This is particularly true in regards to the criminal justice system, which acts as a signpost for accepted individual behavior. Illegal acts are not just immoral in and of themselves, they also carry the stigma of being condemned by the community at large. Likewise, acts that are not just permitted by the law but are pursued through it assume a status of legitimacy. Hence, the legal system must exercise caution before it conditions human life lest the public hears the wrong lesson.
The death penalty represents one way in which the law incidentally demeans human life. The death penalty, above all else, is about retribution and about a need to ease our own suffering. We look towards it in natural hope that by making criminals pay the ultimate price, we can find solace in what was lost. That hope fails. The death penalty does not bring back the innocent lives lost and the pain never leaves those left behind. What the death penalty does do is offer us an opportunity to place our instinctive desires for retribution above another’s right to life. It is a dangerous message to learn.
The death penalty contributes to a growing idea that the right to life is not inalienable — that it can be relinquished when we find it inconvenient, when we find it unworthy, and in the case of James Holmes, when we find it just unfair that someone like him should live after so many innocents have died.
The law, however, cannot and should not endorse such a principle. The right to life is not conditional. It is independent of any man’s character or action, for good reason. Once we make the right to life dependent on social mores we give implicit permission for the right to expand or contract as society’s appetites change. We may agree that James Holmes is a good candidate for the death penalty as per the reasons listed above, but that may not prove true for the next defendant whose guilt isn’t so certain and whose offense isn’t so grave. When you permit the death penalty once, you take the risk that it will be used again and you may not like the outcome.
What’s more, the death penalty feeds the culture of violence. It contributes to the conditions that nourish men like Holmes and lead them into valuing pain over human life. Society does not take moral lessons from nuance. It takes it from the strongest emotion moving the law forward. In the case of the death penalty, that emotion is the acceptability of violent retribution over the sanctity of a human life. Thus, while the desire to see Holmes under the needle in no way approaches the atrocity he committed, the legal outlet of that desire does perpetuate the idea that life has limited value. And that lesson ripples throughout American society.
The death penalty on its own is not responsible for men like James Holmes and the actions they take. It is, however, one step in the staircase that leads men down. If we Americans are serious about our desire to break the culture of violence, then we must first overcome our own craving to see men like James Holmes dead. We must make a choice. We need to decide whether our need to see men James Holmes executed is worth the price feeding, however inadvertently, the culture of violence that nourishes men like Holmes in the first the place.