An Increasingly Violent Society Looks for a Way to Deal with the Violent The Link of Punishment to Justice

March 13, 1995|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON ..TC — Washington. -- Surrounded by relatives of murder victims, Gov. George Pataki, fulfilling a campaign pledge, used the pen of a slain police officer last week to sign the legislation making New York the 38th state to restore the death penalty since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume after banning them in the early 1970s.

There were the usual American Civil Liberties Union vows to continue the fight and last-minute speeches from liberal members of the state legislature.

State Sen. Richard Dollinger of Rochester took a syringe from his desk and said: ''What we're going to do today is we are going to fill this with what I think is the greatest venom present in our society today: pure and simple revenge. That is what this is all about.''

This legislation isn't about revenge. It is about justice, or just deserts. And the greatest venom in our society isn't executing murderous criminals, but the loss of respect for human life that has led to the current crime wave.

The legislation is a response to liberals' devaluation of the dignity of man to the level of a head of lettuce.

This view says that humankind may be more complex than plants and animals, but ultimately we are all products of a grand evolutionary process made up of material and energy that has been shaped by pure chance in a random universe.

Isn't that what they have been teaching in our schools and culture? Doesn't Carl Sagan believe that the ''cosmos'' is all there is? Hasn't Darwin's ''survival of the fittest'' become the secular gospel?

Why, then, do the liberals mourn for those who are about to die for committing acts that in previous times would have brought them to the gallows for their and society's own good?

Capital punishment is not about revenge or deterrence. It is about retribution. It even has great benefit for the criminal, because it forces him to confront the serious nature of his acts and his place of residence in the next life.

In his brilliant essay, ''The Humanitarian View of Punishment,'' C.S. Lewis attacks the moral squishiness that has caused society to erase distinctions between good and evil:

''It appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amicable?

''The humanitarian theory,'' continued Lewis, ''removes from punishment the concept of desert. But the concept of desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust.''

Finally, said Lewis, ''The humanitarian theory . . . removes sentences from the hands of jurists whom the public conscience is entitled to criticize and places them in the hands of technical experts whose special sciences do not even employ such categories as rights or justice.''

This has been the central flaw in our modern criminal-justice system. Murderers, once thought to be deserving of death because they killed a fellow human being made in the image of God, are now just misunderstood, abused, dysfunctional victims of an unjust and uncaring society.

No one, from murderers to those who commit less serious crimes, is personally accountable for his actions anymore. There is always an explanation, an excuse, a defense for one's behavior, from football injuries to shrunken brains, to child molestation, to chemical dependency. While in some cases these may be valid explanations, they can never absolve a person from his actions.

New York state, which invented the electric chair and will now employ the more ''humane'' method of lethal injection, must now reform the legal system that allows endless appeals at a cost of millions to taxpayers.

Governor Pataki should be congratulated for following through on a promise to do what his two predecessors refused to do: return a sense of justice and ''just deserts'' to the state criminal-justice system.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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