Marc's Blog

Marc's Blog

On the Execution of John Allen Muhammad

19 Comments

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On Tuesday, John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. sniper, was put to death by lethal injection. While many have celebrated the execution, I am left with a profound sense of sadness and disappointment at our continued use of the death penalty — rather than life in prison — as a form of justice. Like most humans, I struggle to find any sympathy for Muhammad. Instead, my heart goes out to the 13 innocent people murdered or wounded by Muhammad, as well as the millions of citizens who were placed in a 20-day state of terror because of the heartless assassin. Still, I refuse to allow my moral outrage to degenerate into rage and bloodlust.

While some focus on the moral dimensions of the death penalty per se, I make no such argument. In all honesty, I remain conflicted about whether “eye for an eye” justice has a rightful place in a civilized society. No, my concerns are far more pragmatic. How can a nation with such a deeply flawed criminal justice system feel comfortable doling out the most extreme and irreversible punishment imaginable? How can we continue to use state-sanctioned murder as a crime deterrent when all evidence says that it doesn’t work? While the Muhammad case is a clear-cut instance of guilt, our laws must reflect the broad range of death penalty cases that are far more circumstantial and murky.

Right now, many of you are saying “If it were your loved one murdered by Muhammad you’d feel differently.” While that is probably true, it is hardly the point. If I were personally connected to such a tragedy, I would be craving vengeance rather than justice. I would not be my best self. I would not have the moral clarity to make or impose justice. And I would hope that someone would have the courage and character to demand more from me, and from our society. Without such intervention, we would all fail to realize our full moral potential.

19 comments

  1. Clif Soulo - November 12, 2009 3:29 pm

    Those last few sentences…really that last paragraph is very…it describes my feelings exactly. My feeling on it is simple, you cannot tell me that our justice system is 100% accurate, and since it isn’t, to take someones life with a chance of it being mistake is enough in itself for us not to use the death penalty.

  2. Joan Fahlgren - November 12, 2009 6:20 pm

    Laws should always be based on logical analysis of what is the best way to achieve society’s goals of safety, well-being and freedom of its citizens, never on feelings. Not only is our legal system not reliable enough to trust it with such final answers, but condoning killing by the state is not a good example of morality. The state should always be held to the highest standards, setting an example that will be admired and hopefully followed.

  3. Coach Garcia - November 12, 2009 8:12 pm

    While I would agree that it sounds like a kind and endearing philosophy you’ve presented, I have to harness myself and focus on the act against humanity that we’re speaking of. We are talking about how a legal boundary placed upon society should help curb an individual’s desire to perform unacceptable acts that arbitrarily robs an individual of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and even the ownership of property.

    In this case, this brute robs these unalienable rights bestowed upon created beings. It reeks of the assumption that an individual brute has authority greater than that of the Creator; from what Plato refers to as, the ‘Divine.’

    I believe John Locke most helpful now; but suffice it to say, that when one violates the combination of the law of the land, God’s Law, and the natural law – whereby the natural state of species supports the sustaining of a community (e.g. bees, ants, birds, etc.) – otherwise known as an “act of war,” a decision needs to be made by an individual, the community, or those empowered by that community, to protect both innocent individual and/or their community by the removal of the beast from humanity – and all communities for that matter – in order to sustain the lives and value of the created human being(s).

    In holding an individual responsible for brutishly performing an ‘act of war’ upon an individual, or community, it is possible that this form of protection may be a positive example to curb more than one individual’s misguided thoughts, or imaginations, of performing acts of the brute.

    It is not that we ourselves have decided to be brutish, it is the recognition that if we value humanity as a high estate so as to not allow the beast to have their way, then we cannot shy away from our responsibility to secure the safety of our community, even to the point of removing that brutish individual. In other words, kind and endearing niceness does not appeal to the brute; in fact, it only affirms their continuance!

    If we do not provide the beast with the knowledge that there is irreparable damage for their brutish behavior, then we ourselves not only denigrate to the level of the brute for supporting their behavior of their murder, rape, theft, and abuse; we ourselves become the brutes handmaiden, providing ongoing funds for room and board, health care, dental care, and other entitlements only due to responsible, innocent, and law abiding citizens of the human community.

    In your well intended outcome presented, our virtues would have failed, and the strong brute lives on to assume their havok on a weak-kneed society, too scared to cast aside political correctness, in order to protect one of the highest form of divine imperatives, the survivability of community.

  4. james - November 13, 2009 12:09 pm

    i have no problem with the death penalty, morally or ethically, which gets along well with my moral speculations about just wars and abortion.

    if a civilian plans to and successfully murders another civilian/civilians, the murderer probably has a death wish for himself as well. life in prison is cruel to people who really want to be dead, or are better off dead. accomodating them in the most humane way possible is morally correct.

    vengeance, in the case of a loved one, would probably involve exacting some sort of torturous death.

    that said, if major hasan is convicted of the crimes he is accused of committing in ft hood, i believe he should also be put to death.

  5. Coach Garcia - November 13, 2009 4:47 pm

    I’d like my original comments to be reposted. Not sure why they were edited out…as that doesn’t seem to be your style.
    -Coach

  6. EminemsRevenge - November 14, 2009 7:09 am

    The thing that sucks about the death penalty is it’s too soft–for truly heinous crimes life imprisonment is MORE OF A PUNISHMENT–you’ve got to watch your back and fight being raped for the rest of your life!

    Since all the states are broke, if they’re gonna do the death penalty might as well do it on pay-per-view and make some money off it.

  7. MLL - November 14, 2009 6:26 pm

    Powerful last paragraph Dr. Hill. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Carl - November 14, 2009 7:56 pm

    Dr. Hill great article. I am pro death penalty but you have given me a lot to consider. However, let’s not leave out the cost to society to house an individual for life.

  9. Arsen Azizyan - November 14, 2009 8:24 pm

    You know, I accept the broader argument (flawed justice system, racial bias, inept representation, innocents on death row), but in this case, my main reaction would have to be a yawn. There are certain actions, certain levels of guilt, that give society the right to remove an individual from the living. Not even as a deterrent, but precisely as punishment. John Muhammad’s actions, in my opinion, absolutely fall within the range. I am not an advocate of capital punishment, neither would I protest its abolition, but I have no problem whatsoever with Muhammad’s execution.

  10. Lasha - November 15, 2009 8:49 am

    Great article…I’m not a fan of playing God either. Who am I to say who shall live and who shall perish? Wayward thinking leaves us in a world such as the one we live in today. -”Let’s set an example and punish violence with violence”. It’s like beating your child for getting into a fight at school, something that reinforces to that child that violence is okay. How long before the broken system is corrected?

  11. james - November 16, 2009 11:15 am

    lasha, my children have never been in fights at school, so i don’t really know how i would handle the issue, but i can assure you that beating them can never be completely off the table. in fact, i have jokingly threatened physically punishment for taking part in or initiating any unnecessary violence at school.

    i do believe that physical punishment depends on the child and the kind of behavior you are trying to correct. and the parent must be working from a well-respected and established position of authority. in other words, you can’t go around being nutty all the time and beating the shit out of your kid because you don’t like the way they look. the lines have to be clearly drawn and drawn early and often to make a lasting impression of discipline on the child.

    i’ve beat my daughter with a belt for not sharing a piece of cheesecake with her brother. she has unbearably stupid issues with sharing and does not respond well to anything except a very occasional asswhipping. like twice in 12 years.

    if my son or daughter successfully planned the murder of another fully human being, i would expect to see he or she die before me.

  12. Coach Garcia - November 16, 2009 4:35 pm

    Reposting…as I believe you would like an open discussion.

    While I would agree that it sounds like a kind and endearing philosophy you’ve presented, I have to harness myself and focus on the act against humanity that we’re speaking of. We are talking about how a legal boundary placed upon society should help curb an individual’s desire to perform unacceptable acts that arbitrarily robs an individual of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and even the ownership of property.

    In this case, this brute robs these unalienable rights bestowed upon created beings. It reeks of the assumption that an individual brute has authority greater than that of the Creator; from what Plato refers to as, the ‘Divine.’

    I believe John Locke most helpful now; but suffice it to say that when one violates the combination of the law of the land, God’s Law, and the natural law – whereby the natural state of species supports the sustaining of a community (e.g. bees, ants, birds, etc.) – otherwise known as an “act of war,” a decision needs to be made by an individual, the community, or those empowered by that community, to protect both innocent individual and/or their community by the removal of the beast from humanity – and all communities for that matter – in order to sustain the lives and value of the created human being(s).

    It is not that we ourselves have decided to be brutish, it is the recognition that if we value humanity as a high estate so as to not allow the beast to have their way, then we cannot shy away from our responsibility to secure the safety of our community, even to the point of removing that brutish individual. In other words, kind and endearing niceness does not appeal to the brute; in fact, it only affirms their continuance!

    If we do not provide the beast with the knowledge that there is irreparable damage for their brutish behavior, then we ourselves not only denigrate to the level of the brute for supporting their behavior of their murder, rape, theft, and abuse; we ourselves become the brutes handmaiden, providing ongoing funds for room and board, health care, dental care, and other entitlements only due to responsible, innocent, and law abiding citizens of the human community.

    In your well intended outcome presented, our virtues would have failed, and the strong brute lives on to assume their havoc on a weak-kneed society, too scared to cast aside political correctness, in order to protect one of the highest form of divine imperatives, the survivability of community.


    PS> In holding an individual responsible for brutishly performing an ‘act of war’ upon an individual, or community, it is possible that this form of protection may be a positive example to curb more than one individual’s misguided thoughts, or imaginations, of performing acts of the brute.

  13. Stephen Frazier - November 16, 2009 8:27 pm

    Dr Hill, like so many left wingers, is stuck on the notion that death penalty supporters think it is a deterrent. In a way it is. No person put to death has ever killed again. My support for the penalty is because death removes the criminal from any chance of further hurting anyone. It also makes me feel better if it upsets liberals like Marc Lamont hill.

    As for my kids fighting, the only time I ever spanked my children was when my neighbor reported to me that my middle school son was bullied at school and DIDN’T fight. Gave me some CARP about not wanting to hit a GIRL! So I gave HIM the whack he should have given her.

  14. Tra Mickell - November 16, 2009 9:06 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Hill.
    I have been arguing your point for several years now–and it usually falls on deaf ears. It’s not the “eye-for-an-eye” argument, but instead, for me, it’s about the mistakes made in our system . Death is too permanent a method to use in such a flawed system–wrongly put a person to death and there is no recourse. We cannot “fix it” at all. At least with life imprisonment, we could let them out (couldn’t give back those years, I know)-l-that’s far better than, “Uh-oh, we found the REAL murderer” 5 or 10 years after we’ve put some innocent person to death.

  15. Ron - November 17, 2009 10:47 am

    Dr. Hill, I just discovered you as I don’t watch the spin doctors on cable. My English Professor sent me a link of your interview on O’Reilly. I also have moral reservations about the death penalty, but have no desire to feed and keep murderers comfortable for the rest of their lives. If it were possible to safely isolate these extreme prisoners on the north pole or Antartica, I might agree with life in prison. People who make the choices Muhammad did should expect extreme retribution once caught. I have zero sympathy for him and hope his death makes some other nut reconsider. The social arguments being posed are not new. I heard Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver make the same argument as a young man. If we can’t raise the education level and re-inject a sense of morality and ethics into our society, we will continue to slide toward chaos. When I say education I don’t mean necessarily college education, I mean education about life. I will watch you going forward as your clarity is refreshing even though I probably won’t agree with you often.

  16. Lisa - November 17, 2009 12:29 pm

    I can see your view Dr. Hill and understand it.

    What I have a problem with is the life imprisonment of ‘caught red handed’ murders or rapist or someone that mains another human. When there is clear guilt of the crime, then I believe a short prison term and capital punishment is fair and just.

    For example, Alan Methany of Indiana beat his ex-wife to death with a rifle in broad daylight and in front of his children. She was feeding the girls when he showed up. He had been released (for his spousal abuse detention) in Indianapolis and driven to Mishawaka by his family for a short furrow (or is it furlow?). (That arrangement has been terminated at the prison after this happened). His family ignored him while he went to end her life.

    He was eventually put to death but not after spending hundreds of thousands of state taxpayer dollars appealing his death sentence. It took the state over 10 yrs to finally put us (the taxpayers) out of this misery.

    On the other hand, DNA is now providing evidence of innocence for several inmates and that is where this fine line is drawn. I don’t want capital punishment continued on an inmate if there is a doubt to his/her guilt. I think a life sentence would better serve our cultural punishment.

    And at the same time, we need to release non-violent so called criminals that serve time for smoking pot or being a drug addict and give them mental health services, not jail terms. Those people that have drug addictions need doctors and counseling, not jail. Our prison system is messed up and ass backwards.

    Put the dangerous criminals together and put the youngsters and druggies in other facilities. The death penalty does serve a purpose like an earlier commenter suggested.

    And we need to make prison truly a place that no one wants to return to and still keep it humane. No tvs, no exercise rooms, no degrees earned while serving time, no health care better than law abiding citizens, etc. If a homeless person has 3 hots a day and a bed, prison might be better than the streets. There is always about 3% of society that don’t conform to ‘norms’ right Dr? But that’s going O.T.

  17. Robert - November 17, 2009 9:39 pm

    In my opinion, the purpose of the death penalty is not to deter crime, but a means to eliminate those who have no regard for life themselves and act on that disregard.

  18. Jeff - November 26, 2009 9:41 am

    The last paragraph was a joke. For people to praise it like it was a piece of art is just mindless. If one truely reads what Hill has written he basically holds someone else responsible for his actions and opinions. Hill it is not my responsiblity or someone elses to keep you on course with your moral compass in times when your emotions are challenged. That is your responsiblity.

  19. Cobb - November 26, 2009 3:14 pm

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a mass murderer is just a mass murderer, not an excuse to start publicly doubting the system. This is what academics call a false dichotomy. Whether or not JAM was guilty of killing and should be put to death is a moral question that stands apart from whether or not a flawed system should be allowed to execute capital offenders.

    Of all the times to raise questions about one’s own moral confusion based upon the practices of the state maybe you should look at the matter another way. If your mother catches you stealing from the cookie jar, should you get to eat the cookie simply because last week she punished you for doing something your brother did? Of course not. Your mother gets to punish you no matter what because that is the condition of being a child. The condition of being a citizen means that you cede authority to the state. That is a permanent condition unless and until you revoke your citizenship.

    Justice is vengeance dealt systematically via the proxy of the state according to the law. If you want justice, then the state has to deliver it, whether or not the apparatus of the state is flawed. If you want vengeance, then go out and deliver it yourself. Otherwise you take the entire cake the state bakes, the fluffy frosting along with the burnt crust.

    So I say stop mushing the questions. Either murderers like JAM should be put to death or not. The instrumentality is either legal or extralegal. Justice or revenge. But don’t say capital punishment itself should be supported conditionally by invoking mistakes made by the system. It’s a moral question, not a practical question.

    As I see it, free men are capable of making life and death decisions, and of necessity, eventually they must. This is a fundamental human right. The primacy of the law and of the state are part and parcel of the authority of citizens to have a viable proxy. In order to make justice, (as opposed to revenge) then that proxy must be utilized expediently to the best ability of the system. (Deferral is denial).

    In our guts, we know that the judgment of any proxy system will be diluted. But in return we get the benefits of institutional uniformity and vigilance that individuals or posses could not achieve through acts of vengeance. That is a trade off I sleep easily with, and so should you.

    BTW. We went through this before about Tookie Williams. He was the leader of the Crips. Some said that he should have been forgiven. Some said it should have been the Bloods who whacked him. I say justice was served.

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