“And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.”
― Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
As we read the headlines of the past few weeks, our minds are drawn to wonder how it is that things have gone so wrong in our culture, and how man can be at times both incredibly good and disappointingly bad. Two rogue legal immigrants sought to kill dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent Americans at the Boston Marathon after living in this country for some time and, as is becoming clearer, took full advantage of our system of social welfare to bankroll their lives in America.
The testimony against an abortion doctor in a Philadelphia courtroom, if true, has painted a picture of horrific conditions, brutal and insensitive murder, and a system of healthcare oversight gone awry.
The executive branch of our federal government consistently asserts its right to utilize whatever technology, including unmanned drones, it has available to assassinate American citizens who it independently deems (not by indictment in the civil or military judicial system) are participating in terrorism against the United States overseas.
Whatever happened to a culture of life in the United States?
It is a natural reaction for most people to say that Dzhokhar Tsarnev and Kermit Gosnell should face the death penalty for the crimes they are alleged to have committed. It is also understandable to have little sympathy for a radicalized American who, on foreign soil, is training to commit acts of terrorism on our Homeland and to cheer on the government’s attempts to eliminate this threat through the use of unmanned drones before the danger reaches our shores. What is missing from our initial human reaction, so enhanced by the 24-hour news cycle, though, is the higher call to consider the value of all human life, despite how that life has manifested itself in the inhumanity of people like Tsarnev, Gosnell, or any one of a thousand Islamic terrorists.
Who deserves the death penalty more? A radicalized Islamic terrorist? A doctor, who swore once upon a time to do all he could to preserve human life, who allegedly broke the spines of viable babies born in his abortion clinic? A kid from San Diego, Madison, or Tulsa who seeks to act on his aggression, fear, or unhappiness and take up arms with al-Qaeda or Hamas? In our culture, which many of our conservative brethren claim was founded on Judeo-Christian values, it is my assertion that the death penalty should not be a part of the debate.
Life through its very essence is a principled notion, and its value is neither altered through the circumstances of its conception; nor the decision of an evil terrorist to make a political point through ending the lives of others or even his own; nor the isolated judgment of a government that one of its own citizens is too dangerous to be afforded his or her Constitutional rights to due process. Life is life, and it is not for man to assume the awesome duty of ending it through murder, through capital punishment, through “overseas contingency operations”, or through abortion.
Of course, the expedient choice to end life before it has run its course suits many needs. Why spend tens of thousands of dollars a year keeping Tsarnev or Gosnell in prison? Should a baby be forced to lead a life of struggle because his mother is unfit or unready to be a mother? However, when we chose to engage in civil society, that choice has costs which include the costs of a prison system or the cost of helping a young mother find adoptive parents for her unwanted child, or the assistance to make her choice to raise the child as her own a little bit easier. I hear little grumbling when people get on a subway to make it to a ball game here in New York or drive the parkway to reach their beach destinations. Those costs for subways and highways are easy – they bring pleasure. But life, as Robert Penn Warren reminds us, is not full of pleasure alone. It is full of both good and bad. We are called as humans to strive towards the good but, sadly, many miss that mark. It does not change the value of their humanity.
We are called by the events I described above to examine the systems that allow such horror to take place, to question our personal assumptions, and reflect as to whether or not our principles correspond with our words. To my political party I would ask, how is it that the party of personal liberty and freedom can also support the death penalty? To my fellow Christians who support abortion rights I would ask, how can you reconcile the sanctity of human life, created in God’s image and devoid of any other qualifiers, with your support of abortion? To my countrymen I would ask, how is it that we can wrap ourselves in the Constitution without seriously considering the dangerous and intrusive scope of this government that we have allowed to grow unchecked and chip away at our fundamental rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
In these moments of horror, we become better Americans not just through acts of heroism or in exacting justice on those who do our citizens harm but through allowing the events to wash over our souls and to inform our minds.
Life is life, regardless of its perceived worth. It is time once again in this country to defend it no matter where it exists.
Kyle Sabo | Hunter College