Friday, August 28, 2015

Of Guns and News Organizations...

Took a vacation day and a trip down to D.C. yesterday. As I toured the museums and monuments I passed by the Newseum, a private museum dedicated to cataloguing journalism's contribution to our nation's development and discourse. Outside, the Newseum has an exhibit that consists of front pages from newspaper around the country and some from around the world. Yesterday the great majority of U.S. newspapers included a front page story on the slayings of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, two CBS television journalists who were murdered by a disgruntled ex-coworker while performing a live on-air interview. The coverage raged the gamut from shock, to outrage, to sensationalist... with a special category reserved for the New York Post's unbelievably tasteless front page comic-strip style photomontage of Parker's last moments.

The Nebraska paper was a bit different, however. I don't at the moment recall whether they covered this crime on their front page (they likely did, along with most news outlets) but the headline story concerned a voter initiative to retain the death penalty in that state.

The juxtaposition of these two events, it seems to me, is telling. I have long been an opponent of the death penalty and one of the  principal reasons for my opposition is the firmly held belief that, far from acting as a deterrent to the sorts of violent crimes the nation witnessed on Wednesday, the existence of a Death penalty perversely legitimizes them. In enshrining the notion that Justice is served when the State puts a man to death for the commission of a heinous crime, the criminal justice system in some sense legitimizes the crimes of those who kill others in response to a perceived slight or wrong. For these individuals seem to see themselves as instruments of justice meeting out punishment on their own terms. Let us not forget that we live in a nation governed by deep suspicion of government monopolies and of government in general. Time and time again we are told that anything the government does would be more efficiently and more expertly executed by the private sector. This laissez faire ideology extends not only to functions traditionally performed by the private sector in a capitalist society (manufacture and delivery of consumer goods and services) but even to functions that are traditionally the province of government in most developed societies (witness the proliferation of private prisons, for instance, or the use, by the U.S. military of private security contracting firms such as Blackwater). In a very real sense, taking "justice" into one's own hands, up to and including execution,  is a logical extension of this sort of thinking.

Now, of course, it's impossible to state categorically that a justice system that enshrines the notion that the taking of a human life is never a justified response to crime would have prevented this or any other crime. There has never been a human society so perfect where murder is non-existent, and certainly, when the objective of a murder is the securing of material benefit (as would be the case in a robbery, for instance, or murder in the course of perpetuating insurance fraud) the State's views on life, death and justice are largely irrelevant to the criminal who commits the act. But I do believe that a society that promotion the notion that it is never right for the State or any individual to end the life of another (excepting, or course, un-avoidable, immediate self-defense or the protection of others in similar immediate danger) is a society claims for itself a certain moral authority and in so doing ennobles its citizenry by promoting this principle of inviolability. The net effect would likely be a long-term lessening of these sorts of despicable acts of unjustifiable vengeance (a description that could equally apply to the death penalty itself).

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