Nov 2009

Blessed are the merciful

Less than 12 hours ago the State of Virginia executed John Allen Muhammed. I’m sure most people will recall the killing spree he went on in 2002 when the media dubbed him “The Washington Sniper”. Muhammed stalked the suburbs and, from a concealed location, shot people at random with a high-powered rifle. By the time he was caught ten people were dead and four seriously injured. Prior to his execution, Muhammed expressed no remorse for his actions.

Over at The Guardian, Virginia Moffatt has written a column headlined John Allen Muhammed deserved mercy. But as is so often the case with the work of sub-editors and headline writers, this misrepresents her argument. I don’t believe Moffatt actually suggests that Muhammed deserved mercy. I believe her position is a little more subtle; a fact that escaped both the sub-editor and the legion of commentators on her piece insisting — with, I suspect, no little froth — that Muhammed deserved to die.

Moffatt’s primary objection to the execution of Muhammed, and I suspect to the death penalty in general, is not that murderers deserve to live, but that putting them to death “diminishes our humanity”. To me, this is the crux of the death penalty debate and the reason I too am absolutely opposed to it. Of course, Moffatt goes a little far and damages her own argument by suggesting that the execution of Muhammed “makes us no better than the murderer [himself]”.

Terrorising three states for a period of weeks by randomly killing residents, leaving 14 people dead or injured and co-opting a teenager into your murderous plan… well, that probably counts as a worse crime than catching and killing the person who did it. So I really wish that those who — like me — oppose the death penalty, would stop trotting out the “it makes us no better than them” cliché. It would be a very difficult claim to substantiate even if your audience was comprised entirely of wise moral philosophers with no personal axe to grind. But in the real world, where almost all of us allow our gut feelings and emotions to influence our judgment, it just sounds silly.

Nonetheless, I’ll stick by the first part of Moffatt’s argument, even if it also requires a certain overcoming of our gut reaction. A failure to show mercy does indeed diminish our humanity.

See, this is the bit that most people (judging by the comments on Moffatt’s article) fail to understand. We do not show mercy to people like Muhammed because he deserves mercy. We don’t show mercy because of what it offers him. We do it because of what it offers us. Just as forgiveness — which tends to come a long time after mercy — is less about what it offers those who have harmed us, than it is about healing ourselves.

To show mercy is to grant a victory to compassion over hatred. It reinforces the light while diminishing the darkness. It makes us better people. That is why John Allen Muhammed should not have received a lethal injection last night. Not because he deserved mercy. But because we do.

Posted in: Opinion