***CONTROVERSIAL POST WARNING*** This is about a controversial, highly debated topic that a lot of people get really fired up about. There are many perspectives on this issue, all with as much validity as mine. That being said, this is my blog, and these are my thoughts. Take them as you will.
I was watching some older episodes of the ATV (American University TV) show Politics Now!, and in one segment heard a discussion of, fundamentally, the death penalty and the 9/11 military tribunal for six high-level Al-Qaeda operatives. One person on the show was in favor of the death penalty, the other was not. The one individual argued that it was absolutely acceptable to execute these people, and some of the arguments he made were very, very interesting.
Let me say this: I have to think that there is something gravely wrong when someone can say, with a straight face, that it is okay to kill Gitmo prisoners because, #1, they're on foreign soil and they're not U.S. citizens so the U.S. Constitution doesn't apply and, #2, that they're not prisoners of war so the Geneva Convention doesn't apply. First of all, let me start with the fact that if you term these individuals "enemy combatants," which the same individual did later in the program, that I believe that is synonymous with "prisoners of war." Now, the War on Terror is not an actual war in that it has not been declared a war by Congress, but it is being conducted precisely as a war would, with the exception of how we treat prisoners, or "enemy combatants" if you will. I believe that the Geneva Convention rules apply to all conflicts, especially ones in which you are in the business of regularly terming those from the opposing side whom you capture as enemies.
Second of all, maybe you can't apply the Constitution itself to the prisoners, but the point is not the document itself, it's the principles on which the document was written. Those principles are of course primarily geared toward American citizens, but they were written with the "inalienable rights" of all human beings in mind, a philosophy that America today seems to have tragically lost sight of. Jefferson's rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" seem today to be misrepresented in all quarters in all kinds of ways, from all directions. It's either understated or overstated, and taken in directions that I doubt Jefferson ever intended.
Thirdly, I find it very disturbing that some people take various laws as the only source of justice and truth rather than acknowledging a higher ideal. Whether or not you acknowledge God, or a god, it seems evident that there is some kind of higher Moral Law, a "Law of Human Nature" as C.S. Lewis puts it. This is evident in the fact that throughout human history and across cultures, many of our laws have striking similarities. For instance, in no culture that I am aware of has it been popularly thought good to kill or steal. Where did that idea come from? How could it possibly be so uniform without some sort of outside guidance? People today argue about whether the government killing people in the name of justice is acceptable, but they will not argue that killing-- committing murder-- is a bad thing. There is a higher Moral Law than what the US Constitution and US law sets down, and there is a higher source of human rights and human worth too.
Fourth-- one of the hosts on the show pointed out that execution for these prisoners was the will of the families of 9/11 victims as if that was some kind of conclusive point for the need to kill these prisoners in the name of justice. It's not a conclusive point at all. Obviously and understandably, these families are angry and sad to this day. They have a need for justice, but too often in these kind of emotionally charged situations, a need for justice becomes a need for vengeance, and the need for vengeance tends to lean automatically toward killing the people responsible. It is understandable, but that does not mean that the justice system, if it is truly just, should take into account their wishes. This should not be an "eye for an eye" situation. It's one thing to do that in terms of monetary damage and things like that, but life should not be sacrificed for life simply on the whim of the loved ones of the victim of the violence.
How does killing prisoners automatically bring justice? For one thing, many people on death row who are actually guilty of the crimes they are there for WANT the death penalty. Certainly this is true of at least most of the Al-Qaeda terrorists, whose fundamentalist religion tells them to die for Allah, that this will bring them eternal glory and blessings. But this was also true of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who went so far as to waive his right to appeal so that the process would be hastened. By dying for his cause, McVeigh became a martyr for what he believed in. Granted that the people to whom this made him a hero is a relatively small group, this still doesn't solve the problem. I, again, agree with Jim Wallis-- as harsh as it sounds, McVeigh should have been forced to lead a life without parole of solitary confinement and hard labor, and wasted away out of the public eye, so that he cannot be given the status of martyrdom by those who would seek to emulate him. There is no excusing the crime that he committed-- there is no excusing any of these crimes-- but there is also no bringing back those that he killed, and what would be accomplished by adding his life to the mix? McVeigh got what he wanted, and accomplished only bringing closure for the families. While I don't diminish the importance of closure and healing for the families, I am not sure that the death penalty is the best way to accomplish true justice.
One final point that bears asking-- who put us in the position to judge who lives and who dies? Who really brings justice? As a Christian I believe that God alone brings true justice, and all of man's attempts fall short. That includes killing someone. That merely brings at best the illusion of justice. I do not, and will never, say that the fact that God will bring true justice is reason not to punish someone for wrongdoing-- we have to give punishment to the best of our understanding, but I personally believe that a right to life is something that neither man, law, or government has the right to take away, no matter how heinous the crime.