Vengeance Is Mine?

In Romans 12:19, Bible readers are warned, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Apparently that message is lost on most so-called Christians in the US. After all, we rank among the top five nations for executions. We also lead the world in total number of prisoners, as well as the percentage of our population that is incarcerated.

To show the disconnect between Christ’s teachings and his conservative followers, consider the Republican primary debates of 2012. Many conservatives who count themselves as “Christians” loudly cheered Texas governor Rick Perry when he responded to the question if he ever lost sleep over his state’s large number of executions by saying, “I’ve never struggled with that at all.”

In fact, we should all lose sleep over our policies of incarceration, solitary confinement and executions. Modern DNA testing has shown that 4 percent of the prisoners kept in isolation on death row are, in fact, innocent. That begs the question, “How many innocent people have been executed in the past?” How many more will be killed as the result of sanctioned, pre-meditated murder by the states?

These killings are not going to change the crimes committed by the prisoners. They do not save money. (Studies have shown that it costs 10 times as much to execute a prisoner as to imprison them for life.} They do not even deter other crimes. One study after another has shown that the death penalty does not prevent murders. So why do we continue to sentence people to death? Why are more than 3,000 Americans sitting on death row?

In a word, revenge.

Revenge is also the reason we continue to sentence children to prison for relatively minor crimes. Oh, that’s right…we’re forbidden to call it prison. It’s “juvenile detention.” And these children are not placed in cells. They are in “rooms” or “dormitories.” Likewise, these children are not subjected to punishment. They are subjected to “safety and security measures.” In reality, we’re simply introducing these children to the prison system at an early age. And we’re teaching them how to be real criminals. You can read more in Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down The House.

What then, you may ask, should we do with children who have committed serious crimes? There’s a new movement that has shown to have much better results than punishment. It’s the system of Restorative Justice. In this system, the children are required to meet and talk with the victims of their crimes. They are required to explain their actions. They are forced to hear and see the consequences of those actions. Then the children and their victims negotiate an equitable restitution. Only if they are defiant or refuse to participate are they sent through the traditional, punishment-oriented system.

Our system of revenge often has racial and profit motives. Private prisons are quite profitable – the more prisoners, the greater the profits. (An example of the effects of this is “Kids for Cash” scheme involving two Pennsylvania judges.) And revenge is easier to commit against someone who looks different than you. That’s why our prison populations are disproportionately minorities.

Of course, revenge is not limited to our justice system. It’s the cause of most wars. Israel is notorious for disproportionate revenge killings, such as the current bombing campaign against Gaza. Muslim extremists have committed thousands of atrocities based on offenses against Islam both real and imagined. And the US? Revenge and greed were the key components in our genocide of Native Americans. Revenge for what was falsely perceived as an attack on the USS Maine led to the Spanish-American War. Revenge and misunderstandings led to World War I. And revenge was the motive for our involvement in Afghanistan. Worse, our expectation of a threat is what led us to pre-emptively strike Iraq, and the Middle East is now suffering the consequences.

Certainly, a venegeful response is sometimes necessary as in the case of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But we all would be a lot better off if our justice system and our government leaders practiced the advice often given to toddlers. Take a few deep breaths and consider the consequences of your actions. Will revenge really accomplish justice? Or will it simply satisfy the more animalistic and weakest aspects of our beings?

Out Of The Mouths Of Comedians…

One of the sad facts about today’s media is that the hosts of several satirical “news” comedies are better journalists than the news readers on the so-called news networks. They are often more factual and probe more deeply into stories than many of those who pretend to be journalists. Moreover, they are even willing to take the few minutes needed to check their sources…something that many journalists don’t. That’s why so many news stories are superficial, sensational and hopelessly biased, such as Lara Logan’s infamous 60 Minutes Benghazi fiction.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that comedian John Oliver added some much needed perspective to the GOP claims of widespread in-person voter fraud and to the subject of capital punishment. On his HBO show called Last Week Tonight, Oliver noted that modern DNA testing has proven that approximately 4 percent of those prisoners awaiting execution on death row are innocent. But there were just 4 confirmed cases of in-person voter fraud over the past decade. That computes to something like 0.00000001 percent of all the votes cast!

Yet GOP conservatives have rushed to pass voter ID bills that will impose hardships on many voters, including college students, the elderly and minorities. At the same time, they literally applaud attempts by red state governors to speed up executions by reducing the number of appeals, even when there is reasonable cause to presume innocence.

Such are the values of today’s GOP. The fear of a token number of fraudulent votes trumps the fear of wrongly executing innocent people!

One suspects that conservatives might feel differently if they, or one of their family members, were wrongly convicted and sitting in isolation on death row. And since you are known by the company you keep, one imagines that conservatives might be embarrassed to learn that, when it comes to capital punishment, the US stands alongside Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and China. Together these nations conduct the vast majority of the world’s executions. Most of the rest of the world is horrified by our insistence on venegence. Indeed, that’s why the states determined to continue executions are struggling to find the necessary drugs…European pharmaceutical companies refuse to sell them to the US.

One cannot even justify capital punishment based on monetary savings. Despite claims to the contrary, the cumulative cost of court appeals, death row confinement and execution is 10 times more expensive than the cost of imprisoning a convicted murderer for the rest of his or her life. Further, there is a great moral cost for a society that is willing to exact venegence through capital punishment…especially when some of those executed are innocent. A single execution of an innocent person makes everyone who favors government-sanctioned murder a killer. There simply can be no denial of that fact.

Of course, we all might rest a bit easier if we could be certain of each and every verdict. But our justice system has proven to be all too fallible. According to the National Academy of Sciences, there have been 312 DNA exonerations since we have been doing advanced forensic testing. That’s 312 people who went through the horror of being convicted of a crime they didn’t commit; who were subjected to solitary confinement – often for many years – before being proven innocent.

Yet they were the lucky ones!

Those who were executed before modern DNA techniques or, in some cases, despite of them, lost their lives based on a mistake. In the immortal words of the nation’s most prolific executioner and amateur debater, Texas Governor Rick Perry…”Oops!”