Killing Prisoners, Valuing Human Life

Police photo (probably the Coconut Creek Police Department): Police arresting Nikolas J. Cruz in Florida, following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. (February 14, 2018)
(From Coconut Creek Police Department(?), via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Suspect arrested, after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. (2018))

A fervent defense of capital punishment popped up in my social media feeds recently.

By the time I went back, looking for the post, it had disappeared into the digital mists.

Engraving by an anonymous artist: Execution of Jacques Pierre Brissot and other subversives. (1793)I don’t remember what had inspired the declaration of allegiance to execution.

But I do remember that he was a self-identified “traditional Catholic.” And that he had disdain for folks who said they were Catholic, but didn’t agree with him.

None of that’s particularly noteworthy. Fervent defenses, denunciations and declarations happen. Sometimes they’re aimed at old-school ideas, sometimes new notions are targets of praise or blame.

Maybe headlines like this triggered last weekend’s acclamation of executions:

Then again, maybe not. Either way, that person’s support for killing prisoners reminded me that I haven’t written about capital punishment for quite a while.

As usual, when humans are involved, the issues are complicated. And, in another way, they’re simple.

The Execution Option: Two Examples

Claes Jansz Visscher's Gunpowder plot executions etching, detail. (1606)
(From National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(English justice, 1606: public vivisection after the Gunpowder Treason Plot.)

Capital punishment, state-sanctioned killing of individuals, goes back at least to the days of Ur-Nammu, when conviction for robbery meant death.

I don’t know of an American state which executes robbers, but several do retain the right to kill folks who have been convicted of serious crimes.

And my country’s federal government has retained its right to kill citizens: again, those who have been convicted of serious crimes.1

I’ll be looking at cases involving the execution option: the Stoneman Douglas High School (Parkland, Florida) mass murder in 2018, and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

Stoneman Douglas High School Massacre

BBC News: 'Peter Wang, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student.'
(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Peter Wang; November 9, 2002 — February 14, 2018; killed while helping fellow-students evacuate Stoneman Douglas High School.)

There were heroes at the school, back in 2018.

Teacher Scott Beigel unlocked a classroom for fleeing students. Assistant football coach and security guard Aaron Feis shielded two students from the killer. Athletic director Chris Hixon heard gunfire and began running toward the trouble.

Student Peter Wang kept a door open so that others could flee. Student Meadow Pollack was shot four times. Then she tried shielding Cara Loughran, another student.

All were killed by the person who had picked that day for bringing death to Stoneman High School .

Great Seal of the United States, 'Annuit coeptis Novus ordo seclorum' 'He favors/has favored [our] undertakings - New order of the ages' (2008) rendered by Ipankonin, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission. I’m guessing that the incident is a hot-button issue in some circles. Largely because I’ve seen crazy claims about the mass murder. For example, I’ve read that:

  • The dead students weren’t students
  • The mass murder was an American conspiracy
  • Surviving students and staff are enemies of the people.

But oddly enough, I’ve yet to be told that Florida doesn’t really exist.

Or that Stoneman Douglas High School is really a KGB/Illuminati front, bent on replacing humans with shape-shifting space-alien lizard-men.

I suppose some crazy notions are too crazy for even the most fervent conspiracy buffs. And that’s another topic.

Surveillance camera video and survivors identified a young man as the killer.

He’s been accused and tried. He pleaded guilty last year. Or should that be “pled guilty?” Anyway, the sentencing phase of his trial is in progress. A jury and judge are making a go/no-go decision ordering his execution.2

Heroes and the Perpetrator

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (June 2008)Even allowing for a tendency to remember the best of folks who have died, I think we lost good people on February 14, 2018.

The perpetrator, on the other hand, hasn’t been looking too good. Understandably.

If news media had been painting a glowing picture of Nikolas Cruz: we’d have another sort of problem on our hands. And I think not making him into a celebrity of sorts, renowned for his bad behavior and sad past, was a good idea.

I am, however, left with a sketchy and inconsistent description of the young man.

According to these news items, one written shortly after the mass murder, the other this week, the perpetrator was a social media racist with a strong “B” average in school.

And a mentally stricken chap who had been “struggling in school socially and academically throughout his young life.” Granted, that’s what his defense attorney said.

Nikolas Cruz’s defense says his brain was ‘poisoned’ by birth mother’s addictions in death penalty trial
Eric Levenson, Denise Royal, Sara Weisfeldt; CNN (August 23, 2022)

“…In particular, McNeill highlighted his birth mother’s abuse of drugs and alcohol during his pregnancy, saying Cruz showed signs from a young age of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and antisocial personality disorder….

“…In opening statements Monday, McNeill laid out Cruz’s difficult family life, including his birth mother’s history of addiction and the death of his adoptive parents Lynda and Roger Cruz….

“…Cruz first received special education services at age 6, struggling in school socially and academically throughout his young life, she said….”

Social media paints picture of racist ‘professional school shooter’” Eliott C. McLaughlin, Madison Park; CNN (February 16, 2018)

“…Cruz appears to have been involved in the high school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, as his name is listed under several awards in 2016, including academic achievement for maintaining an A grade in JROTC and Bs in other subjects….”

Still, those two pieces, written four and a half years apart, don’t give a consistent picture of the individual who decided that killing people was a good idea.

Again, understandably. Reporters and news editors have had years to collect opinions and facts: and decide which slices of reality they think will interest their readers.

Plus, I’ve been seeing the usual 20-20 hindsight and Monday morning quarterbacking in assorted news and views.3

Drawings, Declarations and a Satanic Misspelling

A drawing by Nikolas Cruz: 666 and other symbols. From Broward County Sheriff, via New York Post.
(From Broward County Sheriff, via New York Post, used w/o permission.)
(Nikolas Cruz: “Hail Lusifer” [sic] and more, drawn while in custody.)

Drawing by Nikolas Cruz: depiction of a school shooting. From Broward County Sheriff, via New York Post.
(From Broward County Sheriff, via New York Post, used w/o permission.)
(A school shooting, as drawn while in custody.)

Some of what I’ve read, including his — fervent? — written declarations, very strongly suggest to me that Nicholas Cruz is not a happy person.

“…Several pages feature declarations of love for Satan and pictures of various types of guns and ammunition.

“Another entry calls for more mass shootings.

“Cruz wrote asking for ‘my brothers and sisters of blood and death to kill your children.’

“‘I ask for mass murders and terrorists to destroy this f—– country and spread evil and destruction,’ he added….”
(“Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz scrawled ‘666’ on prison cell wall in his own blood,” Selim Algar, New York Post (August 23, 2022))

Or maybe he thinks he’s been setting up an insanity defense.

I don’t know, and am very thankful that I’m not sitting on that jury. “Distasteful” is the mildest adjective I can think of, describing the sort of intellectual and emotional sewage they’re wading through.

As for his apparent attitude toward guns and Satan, I’m not surprised at the distinct lack of ‘gun rights exposed as Satanic plot’ headlines. I’ll get back to that, briefly.

Which brings me to why I’m neither surprised at “declarations of love for Satan,” nor willing to go ballistic over the defendant’s drawings.

Demons: Seriously, but Not Obsessively

Louis-Léopold Boilly's 'Tartini's Dream.' (1824)I think Satan exists. That’s not even close to believing that demons look like my culture’s depictions of fallen angels.

Or that demons ‘look like’ anything. They’re profoundly not like us, and that may take a little explaining.

Humans have intelligence and will. We’re made of spirit and the stuff of this universe. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355-373, 1730)

Angels have intelligence and will, too. In that way, they’re people, persons, like us. But angels are spirits with no physical bodies. (Catechism, 328-330)

Demons are angels who made a really bad decision. The devil, or Satan, is our name for the angel who decided that saying “no” to God made sense. (Catechism, 391-395)

Now, I’ll grant that what we know about Satan makes for some colorful imagery.

“Jesus said, ‘I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.”
(Luke 10:18)

But I also think C. S. Lewis has a point. Acknowledging a fellow-creature’s existence makes sense. Giving that creature my mind’s center stage doesn’t.

“…There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight….”
(“The Screwtape Letters,” Preface, C. S. Lewis (1942))

As for ‘gun rights exposed as Satanic plot’ headlines? I don’t think we’ll see that.

My experience strongly suggests that there are folks who see Satanic plots under every rock; while other folks fear firearms with a passion reminiscent of commie-hunters. And that’s yet another topic.4

But, although they exhibit similar levels of unswerving zeal, the ‘Satanic plots’ demographic and ‘beware guns’ contingent don’t strike me as overlapping.

Not to any great extent. I’d be surprised if more than a few individuals have been denouncing Satanic firearms. And for that I will be grateful.

Boston Marathon Bombing

Aaron Tang's photo: Shortly after the first Boston Marathon explosion. (April 15, 2013)
(From Aaron Tang, via Wikimedia, used w/o permission.)
(Spectators down. Boston Marathon: April 15, 2013.)

What happened during the 2013 Boston Marathon could have been much worse.

Only three spectators were killed, although hundreds were injured, when two pressure cooker bombs detonated near the finish line.

Several more deaths followed:

  • An MIT police officer, killed by one of the two perpetrators
  • Another police officer who died a year later from injuries inflicted by the pair
  • One of the bombers
  • A man who was driven to suicide by enthusiastic vigilantes

And, maybe, Ibragim Todashev’s death. A law enforcement official killed him while he was writing a statement about the Boston Marathon bombing. Seems that Todashev attacked the official with a samurai sword. Or a pipe. Or a knife: or something like that, anyway.5

This is among the reasons that, on those rare occasions when I have been interviewed by law enforcement officials, I make it a point to move slowly.

Also speak mildly, and do my level best to put the other folks at ease.

They’ve got stressful jobs, and it’s in my interest to avoid making them any more difficult.

Pressure Cookers, Purported Plots and Punishment Permutation

FBI's photo: fragment which may have been part of bomb used in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. (April 15, 2013?) via New York Times, Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permissionAgain, the Boston Marathon bombing could have been much worse.

Despite a clear connection between culinary technology and the terrorist attack, pressure cookers are still legal in America.

Although I suppose that someone, somewhere, is calling for stronger pressure cooker control laws.

And I don’t recall anyone claiming that foot races lead to terrorism.

But we did get a modest selection of crazy claims. That the bombing, for example, was an American plot, a Saudi plot, a Russian-American plot; or, on a more traditional note, a diabolical scheme conceived by Zionist Jews.

In any case, by April 20, 2013, two brothers had been identified as the ones who had bombed the Boston Marathon. One was dead and the other caught.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty of 30 federal offenses, and sentenced to death.

The legal story hadn’t been simple from the get-go, but it’s gotten even more complicated.

In 2020 a few minor charges were reversed along with his death sentence.

He was still looking at life in prison. Then, in March of this year, the death sentence went back into effect

I gather that the Tsarnaev brothers weren’t connected with any terrorist groups, but had decided that killing and injuring spectators at the Boston Marathon would protect Islam from the United States.

That makes as about much sense to me as the Stoneman killer’s “Hail Lusifer” [sic].

But I’m not a Kyrgyz-American whose family had been yanked out of Chechnya by the Soviet Union, was born in Kyrgyzstan, and ended up in Massachusetts after a stopover of sorts in Dagestan.6

Capital Punishment?

Branford Clarke's cartoon, from page 21 of Alma White's 'Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty;' Zarephath, New Jersey. (1926)
(From Branford Clarke, Alma White; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)

I don’t know how or why the Tsarnaev brothers started taking their cues from an online Al-Qaeda magazine. I’m far less uncertain as to why some American Christians feel a need to protect their country from people like me.7 And that’s yet again another topic.

But I do know why I can’t jump on ‘support capital punishment’ bandwagons.

Briefly, I’m not allowed to.

Or, rather, I can’t: not if I take my faith seriously, which I do.

Death, Life and Principles

Philippe de Champaigne's 'Vanitas.' (ca. 1671)
(From CoPhilippe de Champaigne, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“Vanitas,” Philippe de Chapaigne. (ca. 1871))

Basically, I think human life matters. That’s not just my opinion.

If I’m going to take my faith seriously, I must think that human life is sacred, a gift from God. Every human life. Each human life: no matter how young or old, healthy or sick we are. (Catechism, 2258, 2261, 2268-2283)

Here’s where it gets interesting.

I can’t decide that I’m human: but that another human who’s not like me isn’t.

We’re all human: no matter what we do, what we believe, or where we live. And we’re all obliged to “to do what is good and avoid what is evil.” (Catechism, 360, 1700-1706, 1932-1935)

The lives of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Nikolas Cruz matter because they’re human.

What they did, and what they believe, doesn’t change that. Like it or not, we’re all made “in the image and likeness of God.” Respecting “the transcendent dignity of man” may be inconvenient, but it’s part of my faith. (Catechism, 360, 1700-1706, 1928-1942)

So is remembering that responsibility and justice matter.

Like everybody else, I can try helping or hurting others. And I’m responsible for my actions. (Catechism, 1701-1709, 1730-1738, 2258)

But, although justice is a cardinal virtue, vengeance isn’t. (Deuteronomy 32:35; Sirach 27:2728; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:3031; Catechism, 1807, 2262)

I’ve talked about that before, and the principles involved.

They’re pretty simple, actually. But not at all easy.

I should love God, love my neighbor, and see everybody as my neighbor. Everybody. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2537; Catechism, 1789)

A Rule That Changed

Pieter Claesz, 'Vanitas Still Life.' (1630) currently in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.
(From Pieter Claesz, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“Vanitas Still Life,” Pieter Claesz. (1630))

The Atlanta Georgian: April 29, 1913. 'Police Have the Strangler' headline, a pre-trial announcement that Leo Frank had murdered Mary Phagan.Thinking that human life matters, and that people who commit appalling crimes are human, puts a crimp in old-school attitudes toward ‘bad guys.’

This was true, back when someone attacked folks in Stoneman High School.

“Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

“Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’†”
(Catechism, 2267, prior to August, 2018)
(†Pope St. John Paul II, Encyclical Evangelium vitae 56)

I figured that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity” involved places that were so isolated and dirt-poor that the folks couldn’t afford to build a jail, let alone hire a jailer.

But I also figured that it’s a big world: and that maybe such places existed. A desert island, say, where folks would starve if everyone didn’t go out and catch fish every day.

I didn’t know of any place like that, but realized that it might, hypothetically, exist.

Then, six months after the Stoneman High School killings, that rule changed.8

“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’,‡ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
(Catechism, 2267, after August, 2018)
(‡ Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.)

I don’t mind the revised Catechism, 2267.

Partly because I realize that conditions have changed over the last 30 years. And partly because I don’t mind having one less opportunity for authorities to weasel out of ethical obligations, while mimicking respect for Catholic teaching. And that’s still another topic.

Finally, I realize that that our rules, like which liturgical colors go with which season, or how we accommodate native customs — killing prisoners, for example — change.

The reasons we have for making, and occasionally changing, our rules? Those don’t change. And that’s — you guessed it — even more topics.

1 Death penalty, from Ur-Nammu to the United States:

2 Perceptions and an incident in Parkland:

3 More perceptions:

4 Attitudes, then and now:

5 Spring, 2013; bad, but could have been worse:

6 Boston Marathon bombing, making sense and other alternatives:

7 Attitudes:

8 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267, background:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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