Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Saving Citizens from the Theater of Capital Punishment

In good-things news, Martin O'Malley, term-limit lame-duck governor of Maryland, announced that he will use gubernatorial authority to commute the sentences of Maryland's last four death-row inmates to "life without possibility for parole".


He had previously spearheaded the successful legislative effort to repeal the death penalty in 2013 (which was not challenged by referendum, due to lack of signatures), which left the status of the five men then on death row in question, and by this action has ensured that my home state has (I sincerely hope) executed a human for the last time. (There were five men on death row when the legislature struck down capital punishment; one has since died of natural causes.)

But his rhetoric surrounding the action is the most interesting (to me):

The question at hand is whether any public good is served by allowing these essentially un-executable sentences to stand...

Gubernatorial inaction -- at this point in the legal process -- would, in my judgment, needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure.

In the final analysis, there is one truth that stands between and before all of us. That truth is this -- few of us would ever wish for our children or grandchildren to kill another human being or to take part in the killing of another human being. The legislature has expressed this truth by abolishing the death penalty in Maryland.

For these reasons, I intend to commute Maryland’s four remaining death sentences to life without the possibility of parole.

It is my hope that these commutations might bring about a greater degree of closure for all of the survivors and their families. (...)

He's not calling here for mercy for the convicted criminals at issue, but rather, respite for the rest of us -- the general body politic -- respite from further, ultimately pointless legal debate about the elusive possibility of bloodying our collective hands just one more time. He (perhaps paternalistically, but not, I believe, wrongly) declares, by gubernatorial authority, that it is not to the benefit of the survivors and families of victims -- nor for the citizenry of Maryland -- to press on for retributive 'justice'.

In action, he mandates that capital punishment is outside the law, but in rhetoric, he further explains that its pursuit itself is actively harmful to those who pursue it, which seems an interesting angle to take. In this, he seems to be echoing sentiment I recognize from Leah Libresco's bloggings on killing as an act with effects on the killer themself, and as a moral transgression which weakens the conscience:

[W]hen I deliberately take a life, whether on the battlefield or in my home, I am overriding my conscience and my instincts, which are repulsed by murder. These moral habits help me behave correctly, and any attempt to transgress them could weaken them in the future. Thus, I harm myself by weakening my safeguards against immoral action.

Whether or not my decision was necessary (and I would agree that it can be necessary to kill to prevent grievous harm, i.e. when someone would otherwise kill your child, assassinating Hitler, etc) the harm I have done to myself remains. (...)

She's written several excellent related posts over the years, developing a general theory of the harm we do ourselves when we seek to kill. Like most things Leah writes, I think they're all well worth reading and thinking about. But if you're strapped for time, here's my closing take:

Murder, even when necessary, makes us -- as participants, licensers, prosecutors, petitioners or willing citizenry -- into weaker citizens, into people less able to value human life. And so, though there are cases where the government does need to kill people, there is a tangible cost to spending time and moral-mental cycles asking ourselves "Is this one of those times?", and an enormous benefit to short-circuiting that inquiry with a 'no'.

Thank you, Governor O'Malley, for saving the people of Maryland a few askings of the dehumanizing question.