Seven years ago, John Allen Muhammad, the “Beltway Sniper”, terrorized the DC area for three weeks in October, randomly killing 10 people and wounding 3 more. I remember it well. If you drew lines between the first three locations in which people were shot, my office was in the middle of that triangle. I can remember running zig-zag across the street to get to another office building and standing behind large tarps at gas stations while I pumped. I had moved to the DC area the year before – right before 9/11 – and with the Sniper, 9/11 and the anthrax scare, I was reconsidering my move from Ohio. There is a reason we use the term “terrorist”.
Tomorrow Muhammad is to be executed by the state of Virginia for his crimes. Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington is asking that Muhammad be given life in jail rather than the death penalty. I support his call to commute the death penalty for Muhammad. In fact, I think the death penalty should be abolished in this country.
Why? It is not that I think the State does not have the right to use the death penalty. Both Scripture and Tradition make clear that legitimate governments are allowed to use the death penalty as a means of maintaining order if that is necessary. However, just because the State has the right to execute does not mean it has the obligation to do so. Like Pope John Paul II, I do not think that the death penalty is necessary in modern society. Our country is the most materially blessed nation in the history of humanity – we don’t even blink an eye at 65″ HD television sets sitting in someone’s living room – so we have the resources necessary to detain dangerous criminals and keep them from society if needed.
Furthermore, I think it profoundly sad that our culture is so incredibly violent and yet we react with surprise and indignation when we produce violent criminals. From video games to movies to popular music we pump violent imagery into the minds of our citizens and then we are shocked when some of them act out on it? Combine that “imaginary” violence with the real destruction of human life that is abortion which surrounds us, and we have a recipe for disaster. But when someone does act out in violent ways, our solution is simply more violence: let’s just kill them to rid ourselves of the problem.
I am not saying that people do not have personal responsibility. We all make choices in what imagery we consume and how we react to it. Yet I cannot help but wonder why it is that as a society we are willing to destroy people with our rotten culture yet are unwilling to spend the funds necessary to try to rehabilitate them. (I would also argue that the extreme form of separation of church and state our country has adopted in recent generations exacerbates the problem, as churches are not allowed to be directly involved in this rehabilitation effort).
Finally, I think the abolishment of the death penalty would be a strong pro-life stand in our culture of death. Abortion and the death penalty are not equivalent issues – the death of an innocent child is not the same as the death of a convicted criminal by the State – yet I think both are fundamentally saying that killing a person is the solution to a problem. In our country, where such a “solution” is never necessary, we should strive to abolish the death penalty, including for people like John Allen Muhammad.