The hawks and doves of criminal justice

Sirhan Sirhan's plea for parole suggests how divided, if not confused, everbody's thinking is on the subject of criminal justice. Where punishment by law is concerned, there are ''hawks'' and ''doves'' as surely as there were 14 years ago when Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy. Sirhan played upon this polarization when he argued against his continued imprisonment by boldly stating: ''I sincerely believe that if Robert Kennedy were alive today, he would not countenance singling me out for this treatment.''

In retrospect, Robert Kennedy is generally perceived as a ''hawk'' who, on many of life's issues as well as Vietnam, went from toughness to compassion in a rather remarkable reversal of attitude, and even character. Would he, in fact, have been disposed to pardon his assassin? It is a foolish and melodramatic question that Sirhan, of all people, has little right to bring up.

But one thing is certain. We ''hawks'' and ''doves'' of 1982 continue to circle between toughness and compassion, those equal if somewhat opposite American ideals that can tie us into knots when the subject is foreign policy, welfare programs, or even ''parenting.''

When the subject is criminal justice, the testing point becomes capital punishment -- an issue hardly irrelevant to the Sirhan case. Americans' complicated and often contradictory feelings on this matter are signaled by the correspondence in the May issue of Matchbox, the journal of Amnesty International.

From the start the AI policy on capital punishment has been clear, as restated in the current Matchbox: ''The extermination of human beings can never be an acceptable function of government. . . There are some things a government may never do to any human being for anym reason.''

But a number of Amnesty International members have assumed their organization was exclusively concerned with ''prisoners of conscience -- those men and women who are in prison for their beliefs, color, ethnic origin, or religion.'' Upon discovering that Amnesty International regards the death penalty as the ultimate violation of the human rights of all prisoners, including the most brutal murderer, letters of protest and resignation began to pour in.

''Does Amnesty International really want to protect Charles Manson, Richard Speck, Sirhan Sirhan?'' one correspondent asks.

''I strongly suspect you have just acquired a bleeding heart,'' another member writes.

''Opposition to the death penalty, legally imposed, is remote from the purposes for which Amnesty International was established,'' a third letter writer maintains. ''What next -- gun laws, vivisection, and saluting the flag?''

Perhaps the most remarkable objection comes from the man who insists: ''I do not think of the death penalty as punishment; if used, promptly, it can be swift , short, and not punishing.''

Thus those who are preeminently against violence choose to make one exception.

In Britain the House of Commons has just voted 357 to 195 against a motion to restore the death penalty. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, an amendment to the State constitution, reinstating the death penalty, may be offered to voters as a November referendum. There is no clear consensus on the issue. Historically , majority opinion keeps vacillating back and forth -- and in each individual's conscience motives clash too.

Does one say, ''Thou shalt not kill'' -- ever -- making the last guilt to be considered that of those who kill the killers? Or does one cast one's vote out of the 3-o'clock-in-the-morning feeling that beasts are out there whose very existence is a threat to the innocent, not to be tolerated?

It is a scary business - to risk everybody's safety on the assumption that human beings capable of bestial behavior will change for the better. But in the end, it may be even more frightening to live with the assumption that there are human beings beyond redemption. For where does that leave the rest of us?

Perhaps in the middle, dearly longing to be neither hawk nor dove, and shamelessly relieved to know that if we do not want to parole Sirhan in 1984, that does not mean we wish he had been put to death in 1968, along with the man he killed.

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