The Death Penalty Red Herring

During debate, red herring statements are designed to distract hearers from better made arguments. Although irrelevant, red herrings appear so nearly germane to a topic that they are frequently accepted as evidence by all but the most discerning listener.

When discussing the death penalty, two “conservative” red herrings are frequently offered. If asked whether the death penalty should remain a sentencing option, individuals often assert that some crimes deserve the harshest penalty imaginable. Additionally, there are criminals who cannot be rehabilitated – prison will not instigate the behavior change for which it is designed. These statements can be accepted as true.

Furthermore, Christians acknowledge that God – the Creator of life – includes provisions for the death penalty in his revealed word. The Pentateuch commands the death penalty for murder (Numbers 35: 16), adultery (Leviticus 20: 10), blasphemy (Leviticus 24: 14) and numerous other crimes. Again, this assertion can be accepted as true.

Although these statements are factual, they remain red herrings. The capital punishment debate asks whether the state should be permitted to intentionally end life as a means of punishment. Responses which affirm that some crimes deserve death, that some criminals cannot be rehabilitated, and that the death penalty is included in the Bible appear compelling, but they evade the question.

Liberty-minded individuals address the debate clearly – should the state retain the power to kill its citizens as a means of punishment? Many conservatives contend that abortion should be illegal – yet their state defends it. Many conservatives dislike the Affordable Care Act and are wary that the state could employ it to introduce euthanasia. Many conservatives dispute high taxes, object to eminent domain, and abhor public debt. Conservatives are supposed to be – like the Founding Fathers – distrustful of centralized authority, yet some seem eager to afford centralized authority the power over life and death. Many well-intentioned conservatives unwittingly become statists.

The freedom to live is the essential freedom every human being possesses – all other liberties are superfluous if one does not enjoy the right to breathe. It would, it seems, be imprudent to defend all of one’s liberties except the one which matters the most.

Support of the death penalty advances state power and influence; as such, caution is required. Although there are criminals who deserve to die because of their crimes and their inability to rehabilitate, and although the Bible permits capital punishment, we are not bound to support the death penalty. We are better served by defending freedom rather than finding vengeance – even when well-deserved.

It is more sensible to allow a handful of criminals to live than to acquiesce to state power over an essential liberty. Capital punishment only appears to be right – if we accept red herrings.


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