In the wake of what may be the worst mass shooting in U.S. history (by number of people injured or killed), it is perhaps not surprising that people want blood. But before I even woke up this morning, I had messages from people anticipating my response to this tragedy. They told me that the shooter should be executed quickly, that he shouldn’t be allowed to plead insanity, that if he had known that a quick execution would be his punishment he wouldn’t have done it, that we must compensate the victims eye-for-eye, and that if I were one of the victims, I would want blood too.

My response below.

(1) On speedy justice:
If we’re going to insist that the state possess the power to take the lives of citizens for ‘justice’, then you’d better be damned certain they did it. Exonerations on the basis of reworked evidence 10 years, 15 years, 20 and 30 years after the fact prove categorically that truth sometimes takes that long to determine, so the death penalty should be a slow system, unless you don’t care if you kill the wrong people. If you do care about killing the right people, then by rights the system should take its sweet time, and exhaust every possible appeal on every possible grounds. That, or get rid of the death penalty (the latter is my preferred option).

(2) On stopping insanity defenses:
The reason we allow insanity defenses is because mental illnesses exist that sometimes cause homicide. We say we want justice. If we really want justice, then we must allow insanity defenses, because some people who are arrested for homicides (especially the most heinous homicides such as mass shootings) are mentally ill. These are medical afflictions of the same order as any physical afflictions. If we can’t demand that quadraplegics stand and walk, then we can’t demand that the mentally ill behave as though they are mentally well. We can certainly confine them to a secure mental health facility for the rest of their lives, but every industrialized country – including this one – agrees that we can’t put them to death.

(3) On the death penalty as a deterrent:
It just isn’t. There’s just no evidence that shooters like this are generally put off by the thought that they may be executed. Many suspects say they want it! You may argue that’s because we need to do it more quickly as an example of what happens (one suggestion: next week!). Two responses to that: (a) since many such shooters actually kill themselves after killing others, it doesn’t make sense that they’d be deterred by the thought of being killed by anyone else; (b) we would then be violating point (1) above, which inevitably leads to killing innocents, leads to injustice and is counterproductive to our stated aim (to get justice). The argument that the death penalty would prevent tragedies like this from happening is as wrong as the argument that gun control would prevent them, or that the solution is less violent movies. Unfortunately there are no such easy solutions.

(4) On the compensation argument:
It sounds sensible, an eye for an eye. But it isn’t the basis of our justice system, and for good reason. If someone gets raped, we don’t rape their perpetrator back. No justice system would regard that as justice, even though it’s eye-for-eye. If someone tortures and kills someone, we don’t torture them back in an identical way, and no sensible person advocates for such a thing. Also, since many who advocate eye-for-eye in the United States claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, it seems odd that they so blatantly disregard his words on the subject.

(5) On what the victims feel/want: Victims initially want blood, no doubt about it. I would, in their position; we all would. But there are good reasons we don’t give victims their wishes with regard to how we treat the convicted. Their feelings are based on the strong, overriding emotions they feel, not on rational thought. The victims of Bernie Madoff who lost their money may want to kill him. Would we let them? (That would even violate eye-for-eye, since murder in exchange for fraud would be overkill.) No credible commenter has ever suggested that would be a good solution. Often, with the return of rational thought that comes with time, victims feel less inclined to want violence done in reverse. They often come to understand that two wrongs don’t make a right and, when clearer heads prevail, it often comes with pity for the pathetic rather than an unceasing quest for vengeance.

Sorry; justice is NOT brought by emotional people in the direct aftermath of a horrible incident. It’s brought by a system that prioritizes slow, careful truth-finding, that makes certain of its convictions beyond any reasonable doubt and that never resorts to its own violence to accomplish ‘justice’.

Despite what some people think, that wouldn’t be justice at all.