Select Page

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tunes without the words
And never stops at all…

— Emily Dickenson

Government officials have had people killed, for purposes good, bad and indifferent, for as long as there have been governments. Nearly four thousand years ago the Code of Hammaurabi required death for 25 different crimes. The Draconian Code of Seventh Century B.C. Athens was a model of simplicity; death was the penalty for every crime. The ancient Hittites, Romans, and Greeks all punished crime with death. The condemned died by drowning, crucifixion, stoning, impaling, and burning. Physical agony was an important part of the process.

The arguably more humane hanging-by-the-neck became the preferred execution method in Tenth Century England. Showing he was far ahead of his time, William the Conqueror outlawed execution except for murder in the Eleventh Century. Five hundred years later, however, Henry VIII hadn’t much use for such progressive fussiness. He killed an estimated 72,000 of his own subjects. For offenses such as marrying a Jew, failure to confess a crime, and the always handy treason against the crown, Henry boiled, hanged, beheaded, hacked and tortured his way through a host of Englishmen.

By the 1700’s the British Crown was executing people for trivial offenses. There were over 200 “crimes” for which you could be killed, including cutting down a tree, molesting a rabbit warren, and theft both petty and grand. Ultimately, juries were the conscience of the state, refusing to convict when the penalty was death. By the 1850’s reform had arrived. The number of capital crimes fell by half, and has declined steadily since.

Here in America we picked up our death penalty habits from the British. In colonial Virginia you could be hanged for stealing chickens or trading with Indians. In New England those convicted of striking their mother or denying “the true God,” could be killed.

By the time of our Revolution, however, cooler heads were beginning to prevail. Under the influence of early Quakers and Cesare Beccaria’s 1767 essay, On Crimes and Punishment, Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to eliminate the death penalty in Virginia except for murder and treason. It was defeated by a single vote.

Since then the death penalty, with a few blunders into the swamps of racism and prohibition, has become steadily more humane, flexible and rare. We have developed a powerful sense of caution about mistakes. New DNA technology has promoted an admirable fastidiousness about killing the innocent.

It is this three hundred year trend toward mercy, prudence and compassion that makes the court ordered death of Terri Shiavo so disturbing.

Nat Hentoff, a liberal columnist for the Village Voice and a Jewish atheist, has called it the longest public execution in history. I would add that it is also one of the cruelest. We wouldn’t execute terrorists by dehydration and starvation. And an execution it surely was. The judge ordered food and water withheld from Shiavo. He didn’t simply give her husband the option of doing so. Anyone wetting her parched lips with ice chips was subject to arrest. 

The only machine keeping Terri Shiavo alive was a Cuisinart. There was no plug to pull to end her life. Just as there is no plug to pull for the rest of us who are still, mercifully, pumping air and blood under internal power.

The ironies on both the political left and right have been delicious. Left wing abortion promoters defending states’ rights… right wing Christians calling for federal intervention…liberals who would hold candlelight vigils to keep a rapist alive and who wouldn’t have the stomach to shoot a rabid squirrel urging slow death by starvation for an innocent woman… daily proof that legality and morality enjoy only a passing acquaintance.

Granting politicians and judges the power of life and death over the innocent has always been costly for the innocent. Law is too often untouched by morality. The Final Solution was entirely legal. So were the many atrocities committed in the name of Eugenics. The millions who died building the People’s Republics did so with the full approval of the law. 

In the Shiavo case a circuit court judge ordered a helpless woman executed on the dubious suspicion that she was no more sentient than a turnip. Though his decision may have been legally proper, it was as morally empty as a yawning grave.

I will forever admire those at both ends of the political spectrum who fought to prevent this senseless murder. Despite their faults, their grandstanding and self-promotion, despite shameless political pandering, despite the media’s mocking focus on the wackiest among them, they battled bravely the emptiness of moral relativism and nihilism. Those who fought for Shiavo’s life would not obey an official command to despair. They refused the order that Dante told us is emblazoned over the gates of Hell. They refused to abandon hope.