Sweet Revenge

I have blogged in the past about the inherent problems with capital punishment — chiefly the fact that humans who are inherently fallible make the decisions that determine whether another human will die for a presumed crime. But the recent conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 22 year-old found guilty of participating in the bombing of innocent victims in the Boston Marathon in 2013, raises the issue anew. This is especially the case since the young man was found guilty and sentenced by a jury in Boston, Massachusetts, presumed to be a liberal and enlightened city in these United States.

Recall with me a quote from Francis Bacon who said at the turn of the seventeenth century:

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to the more ought the law to weed it out.”

The presumption Bacon makes here is that the law should “weed out” the human tendency to revert to revenge, that revenge is not something we humans ought to be motivated by and it can and should be inhibited by civil law. And yet what possible justification can there be for capital punishment, even in the case when it is crystal clear that that human has taken another life, or lives, except revenge, pure and simple? The usual problem with capital punishment, that human beings are prone to error, especially in moments of stress, cannot be raised here. There is no question of Tsarnaev’s guilt in this case. Three people were killed and many more injured seriously. The question is whether death by injection, as ruled by the court, is called for in this case in a country that prides itself on being humane and civilized.

As Bacon suggests, revenge is a kind of “wild justice” and certainly not worthy of rational, civilized persons who claim to be obedient to the rule of law. Presumably the civil law is consonant with the moral law and if it is not we have no obligation to obey it — as Martin Luther King reminded us many years ago. It is precisely the civil law that is supposed to help civilize us and make us more amenable to the softer virtues of compassion and sympathy for our fellow humans. And, if Bacon is to be believed, law also ought to curb our desire to get revenge on those who do us harm. When we ignore these tenets we lower ourselves to the level of those who live by “wild justice.” Revenge may be sweet, but it is not something we ought to lower ourselves to if in doing so we risk doing irreparable damage to ourselves in the process. Toward that end, law ought not to encourage capital punishment; it ought to “weed it out.”

At a time when those who are pledged to protect and serve the cities in which we live are charged with unfettered and unjustified violence toward, in many cases, innocent civilians, we naturally begin to question the legitimacy of civil law. But there is a difference between respect for those laws when they promote the common good and the human beings who occasionally abuse the privilege of enforcing them. For myself, I think those who abuse the position of protectors of law and order should be punished and punished soundly. But we cannot turn our backs on the law itself when it is precisely that which separates us from brutes — which is what we become when we insist that revenge is lawful. Bacon was right.