No return to federal executions

Ever since a 1972 Supreme Court decision invalidated the nation's existing death penalty laws, there have been efforts to get a federal law back on the books. Now the most significant move so far has been made: approval of a new death penalty law by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a climate of administration approval. Many legislative steps remain. At every stage the opportunity needs to be taken to oppose this relapse to a national policy unworthy of America.

Sadly, executions have already resumed in the United States under laws refashioned by states to be acceptable to the Supreme Court. But for the US to reintroduce capital punishment as a federal fixture would violate the spirit of such an international agreement as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States would be going counter to a world trend toward reducing the number of offenses punishable by execution. Some 20 countries, such as West Germany and Venezuela, have eliminated the penalty entirely. A number of others , such as Canada and Italy, have abolished it in time of peace.

The Senate committee's bill would include crimes such as treason, espionage, and assassination or attempted assassination of a president, though there is a constitutional question as to whether the penalty can be imposed for a crime not causing loss of life. The courts have not yet determined the constitutionality of a current federal provision, never exercised, for the death sentence in cases of air piracy resulting in death.

Why do many governments and individuals with humane instincts continue to favor the death penalty?Among their arguments are that it deters crime, protects society by removing dangerous offenders, and is the only way for society to show sufficient abhorrence for certain crimes. The deterrence argument remains controversial, with the Supreme Court noting that statistical attempts to evaluate it have been inconclusive. Dangerous offenders do not have to be killed; they can be removed from society through effective incarceration without the risk of fatal miscarriages of justice. As for the third argument, there is an appalling and unacceptable irony in a society attempting to show its abhorrence of killing, for example, by institutionalizing killing in return.

Society's protection basically depends not on taking a life for a life but on exemplifying the uncompromising regard for life it wants to see among its members. The overriding argument against the death penalty is the transcendent worth of the individual human being, whose possibilities of regeneration cannot be dismissed, whose life or death cannot be left to the judgment of other fallible mortals.

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