Crimes of the Father, or How We View Justice and Guilt

Sometimes I like to ponder on a thought experiment, which supposes that in March of 1945, Eva Braun gave birth to Adolf Hitler’s only child, who survived the war.  And not only did he survive the war, but everyone knows about him, knows about his parentage, and his location is neither secret, nor protected.  Everything else remained the same as we currently know it now.  Hitler and Braun still shoot themselves in April 1945, Germany still surrenders a week later, the Nuremberg trials proceed as they did.  Every single detail about World War II, and its aftermath, remains the same in this hypothetical timeline as it did in our real history–except for the fact that Hitler’s legacy now includes this baby boy.  So, my question is, how justly do you think people would treat this hypothetical child, in light of his father’s atrocious crimes against humanity?  Remember, he was only two months old when the war ended in Europe, had no hand in any of the decisions carried out by his despot parent, on account that he was too young to even be fully aware of his parent’s existence.  The obvious response I imagine people would give is that they would not blame the innocent boy for the crimes his father had committed, and treat him with the same unbiased opinion as they would any other child.  But this is an easy position for us to claim in a hypothetical scenario, because we are calm and capable of approaching the issue without any emotional consideration.  If the posed questioned was not merely a thought experiment, I think the response would be much different.

You’ve suffered at the hands of the Third Reich; watched your loved ones die around you in agonizing pain; been beaten, starved, left without a home or hope; all due to the actions of that one man who had evaded punishment by taking his own life before anyone else could take it from him.  But here was his son, all that remains of the criminal’s flesh and blood, lying healthy, yet as helplessly as you did at the mercy of his father’s once menacing might.  Now, I ask again, what would your real feelings be towards this child?  Can you honestly say that you would have no resentment or prejudice against him, solely on account of his father’s heinous actions?  And, perhaps, you still insist that your answer remains the same as before, which is fair enough, as I’m in no position to dictate what your personal feelings would be in any given scenario.  But let me ask you another question then: do you believe that the rest of society would be as fair minded as you in dealing with this child?  Or, do you think that it is much more likely that our communal need for justice will quickly develop into a call for vengeance against this spawn of pure evil?

Maybe not at first–our better conscience might win out and prevent us from killing him in infancy–but what about as he grows older?  Would even the most trivial of offenses by the adolescent boy be used as a warrant to denounce him to be as wicked as his father?  Will we associate ever moment of anger and frustration to some inevitable predisposition?  And, if he did become just as bad as his old man, how much of it would we immediately attribute to his genetic relations, without even considering the role our preemptive scrutiny of his character had in shaping his ominous personality?  (Fostering self-fulfilling prophecies is a hallmark of our species, after all.)

I think the way a person responds to this thought experiment says a lot about one’s views of humanity, and its capacity to carry out fair justice, free of biases and prejudices.  I’ve written in the past about my opinions on the failings of our Justice System, how too often we seek vengeance on criminals, than rehabilitation; how we’d prefer to punish a scapegoat, than have no perpetrator to punish at all.  Thus, personally, I think the kid would be dead before he reaches 18 (either through homicide from a vengeful lurker, or suicide brought on through a lifetime of guilt by association for even the most minor of trespasses he might commit in life).  Whether that makes me realistic or pessimistic is anyone’s guess.

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

For lack of a better term, I have to make due in labeling myself as apolitical, meaning that while I hold certain opinions on social matters that occasionally align me within one political camp or another, I never intentionally seek to follow any one party’s ideological narrative, or support someone simply because they belong to party X, instead of party Y (in fact, if you were to list all of my socioeconomic opinions, you’d probably see me swaying from one end of the political spectrum to the other, across varying topics).

When it comes to the death penalty, I’d always been of the opinion that it is something to be opposed, and that those who side with me on this issue are doing a piss poor job arguing against it.  To give a little background, I live in a conservative, right-wing, 2nd Amendment loving state of the southern United States (i.e. Texas), where the death penalty is heralded as the only effective means to combat crime.  Pointing out that many of the urban counties in Texas hold the ranks of housing some of the highest crime rates in the country, despite also having one of the highest execution rates in the nation, is a non-starter with people here, since they can (rightly) maintain that correlation does not imply causation.

I would also freely admit that even if it can be conclusively proven that the death penalty does not deter crime (and I have no reason to suspect that this is not the case) I would refuse to use this as a valid point when debating the issue.  Why?  Because, for the sake of complete honesty, I know that if the evidence went the other way (that executions were deterring crime), my position would still be to oppose the death penalty on principle (I’ll explain further in a moment what I mean by this).  For death penalty opponents to rest their case on this line of reasoning is a blatant surrender of any ethical high-ground, since their counterparts can easily corner them into accepting that if a utilitarian defense of the death penalty could be hypothetically presented, they’d be forced to change their position.  Arguing on such terms is a fruitless waste of time and energy.

The second mode of arguing that my fellow death penalty opponents try to resort to is to point out the number of cases in which innocent lives were put to death before their innocence could be proven.  This, too, is a bad form of arguing in my eyes, as death penalty proponents can again corner their opposition by turning this into an appeal to have more effective methods of ensuring that the guilty party is the one that is held accountable.  Once again, the death penalty opponent seems to be arguing against the screening process, not the practice.  (The argument that minorities are more likely to be executed than whites in America would also fall into this line, as it claims that the death penalty is merely biased, but not wrong, and rather than being abolished needs to be made more egalitarian).

Arguing that the death penalty is state sanctioned murder is equally pointless, since proponents of the practice will rightly mention that the same can be said of war casualties, smugly aware that for one to admit to being against war and military is to commit one of the greatest of blasphemies in eyes of the American public (discrediting your position on the spot).  And I have met few death penalty opponents around here willing to own up to being pacifists.

By far, the worst logic I’ve ever heard is the statement, “I oppose the death penalty, because I’m a liberal.”  This is the worst to me, because I don’t see what place politics has in this discussion (and, yes, I would consider the statement, “I support/oppose the death penalty because I’m a conservative/libertarian/green/monarchist” to be just as stupid).  To hold a position due to it alining with your greater political ideology always makes me think that you haven’t thought about why the death penalty is wrong; you just accept that it is so because that’s what you think a good liberal should think.  As someone who is apolitical, I cannot support such lackluster logic, as it implies that your opposition to the practice will possibly wane throughout your life as your political allegiance changes.  Furthermore, I honestly see no reason why right-wingers and left-wingers could not agree on this issue, other than that both sides are more concerned with opposing one another, instead of actually contemplating on why they oppose/support the death penalty.

Having gone through all of that, let me now state why I, personally, oppose the death penalty.  It can essentially be reduced to one fundamental point: I reject the notion that a human sacrifices is a valid or ethical stance, when it comes to administering justice.  It has nothing to do with politics, or even philosophy, but everything with my opposition to the idea that societal vengeance has any place in the judicial process.  I don’t need any utilitarian, or theological, or Socratic, or syllogistic argument to justify this position.  And I dare those who disagree with me to say that they, in fact, do consider a human sacrifice to be a valid and ethical form of administering justice.  Maybe they’ll disagree with that characterization, but that is not my concern.  You are claiming that a person has committed a crime so heinous, that he must atone for it with his life, in order to redeem your trust in the justice process; this is a call for a blood offering to give you peace of mind.  A passive admission that when it comes to justice, you are primarily concerned with satisfying your own thirst for punishment, not rehabilitation of the citizenry.  An admission that you do not trust in the judicial process, and even reject its effectiveness altogether, if it does not work to satisfy your need for vengeance against those who step outside the law.

Before anyone tries the ever-so emotional tirade of, “you wouldn’t be saying that if someone you cared for had been murdered.  You’d be screaming for blood then, too.”  To this line of reasoning I must respectfully say, do not presume to know who I am, or what I have experienced; let alone how I respond to personal tragedies.  And if we are to go down the realm of appealing to personal experiences, allow me to ask bluntly in return: what peace would it give me to see the person killed as a punishment for the loss of someone I cared for?–None!  Is it going to bring the person back to life?–No!  Nothing changes, the person I loved is still dead.  The only ones satisfied in this scenario are those who advocate the modern equivalent of a blood offering, and they do so only to ease their anxious minds, not mine.  If that is your position, go ahead and hold to it, but do not even for a second pretend that it is ethically superior to my own.  What you want is a justice system focused on revenge and fear of retaliation, what I want is a society built on empathy and introspective enough to reevaluate its mores for the sake of all its citizenry (the good and the bad).