Justice was served to the 11 victims in Pittsburgh’s 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre when, earlier this month, a federal jury recommended the death penalty for its perpetrator, Robert Bowers. Justice, that is, in my opinion. I’m not alone. Polls indicate that half the population favours the death penalty. But since capital punishment in Canada was retired once and for all in 1998, there’s no impetus for further public discussion here, as there is in the United States.
Survivors of the Pittsburgh massacre were divided, albeit lopsidedly, on Bowers’ fate. Seven of the nine affected families expressed support for his execution in a 2021 letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland. But in 2019, four others wrote letters to U.S. Attorney General William Barr requesting a life sentence, explaining that capital punishment was incompatible with Jewish tradition, according to which, “courts imposing capital sentences have been viewed as bloodthirsty since the days of the sages.”
More precisely, the Jewish sages — to their credit, since virtually nobody else in the ancient world gave the matter moral consideration — variously interpreted the Torah’s capital-punishment case law. In fact, the rabbis held the same debates we used to have in Canada. Extreme prudence in establishing guilt was urged by all the rabbis. From there, opinion was divided. One held that a court that executes “once in seven years” may be regarded as a “murderous” court. Any more is to be guilty itself of murder. Another upped the ante to “once in seventy years.” A third argued for abolition altogether. But a fourth cautioned that to be “overly lenient on executing murderers” can “cause the numbers of murderers to rise.”
In Israel, where the death penalty was abolished in 1954, with exceptions for offenses related to genocide, war crimes and treason, there has been exactly one execution, that of Adolf Eichmann, a leading architect of the Holocaust, in 1962 (once in (almost) 70 years). Even in this egregious case, some Jewish intellectuals objected. They reasoned the scale of the crime’s enormity precluded any possibility of meaningful retribution, and, moreover, it might create the impression that the account was settled.
The well-known philosopher Martin Buber, for example, wrote that the execution was a “mistake of historical dimension,” as “Israel’s role should have been that of the accuser and not of judge.” Most famously, philosopher Hannah Arendt, best known for her writings on the nature of totalitarianism, followed the trial in situ, which resulted in a New Yorker piece, later a book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” That phrase entered the cultural lexicon to describe a new kind of monster, the passionless bean-counter for whom mass murder is an engineering rather than a moral challenge. She too argued against his execution.
Conversely, Norman Podhoretz, then editor of Commentary Magazine, and still a leftist, was appalled by Arendt’s “banality” interpretation, considering it close to an exoneration of guilt. In a rebuttal Commentary article, “Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance,” he argued that she was insinuating that Jews must be better than others, “to be braver, wiser, nobler, more dignified — or be damned.” He concluded from her portrait of Eichmann that “there was nothing admirable about brilliance in itself.”
My own views on capital punishment (not to mention on the all-too-frequent moral blindness of the intelligentsia) were strongly influenced by the Eichmann trial and its polemical fallout. On the one hand, here in the dock was the indisputable ultimate in cold-blooded depravity, and on the other were intellectuals arguing he be spared from death because his crime was too heinous for the obvious punishment (can a bride be too beautiful for marriage?); or, more personally unsettling with regard to Jewish intellectuals, because — crudely put — what will the gentiles think of the Jews if we don’t “perform” a nobility of character that would not be asked of any other people.
With respect to the Tree of Life survivors who believe Judaism requires them to aspire to saintliness as opposed to the more reasonable standard of extreme prudence in the application of the death penalty, I admire their genuine decency, but cannot emulate it. I do not believe in any absolute “right to life” principle. Nor do I feel morally diminished by an evildoer’s execution. I am no barbarian, but, in their place, I would view Bowers’ continued existence as perpetual shade cast on my own. His erasure would lighten that load considerably. It’s of no interest to me whether the execution of monsters deters other monsters or not. One’s personal tragedy’s outcome should emerge from justice, not epidemiological data.
It’s my impression that what grosses people out about the death penalty isn’t the principle, but our history of gruesome methods. In my envisioned scenario, irrefutably guilty adult perpetrators of “heinous” crimes (definition TBA) would not face any of the following: drawing and quarterings; burnings at the stake; crucifixions; hangings; gas chambers; guillotines; or the electric chair. All ghastly. (I omitted the firing squad, because that’s my personal preference in the event of my conviction for a heinous crime.)
That leaves the “needle,” considered the most humane and reliable method. Weirdly, the capital-punishment history of lethal injections has been plagued by drug shortages, plus numerous torturously prolonged executions. Strange, because one never hears about such problems with needle-executed MAID, invariably carried out without a hitch, peacefully and painlessly.
Since the death penalty was abolished before the advent of legal euthanasia in Canada — now linked to seven per cent of Quebec deaths, “more than anywhere else in the world,” and occasionally where those euthanized “were unable to consent” — it’s time to revisit the issue. MAID for adult evildoers would be a method most of us could agree on. It would perforce be an offer that could not be refused, but in our present cultural circumstances, that seems — conscience-wise — an easily surmountable hurdle.