Death Penalty and other Killing: The Destructive Effect on Us
by Fr. Jim Hewes
I have opposed the death penalty for years. My reasoning stems from a larger perspective than just the death penalty. It focuses not on the circumstances surrounding the crime or the killer, but the effect of our actions on those that approve of or carry out an execution.
In the biblical book of Genesis after Cain had killed Abel he says to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear.” (Genesis 4:13) God had not done anything to Cain yet, so why does he say this? I never understood this until I read a book by S.L.A. Marshall, Men against Fire. Marshall was a colonel in the U.S. army during World War II. He wrote about men that he interviewed in over 400 infantry companies who were in direct combat in Europe and the Central Pacific during World War II. He was surprised to find that 80% to 85% of the soldiers they interviewed either didn’t fire their weapons or fired intentionally over the head of the enemy.
Another team interviewed soldiers in combat during the Vietnam War. They found a dramatic change-90-95% of those soldiers interviewed fired to kill the enemy (from “On Killing” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman p. 35).
What is the result of this change? The VA estimated there were tens of thousands of Vietnam Veterans who were homeless at one time, and thousands of Vietnam Vets have been in our nation’s prisons and jails since the war ended. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam Veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Thousands of Vietnam veterans have committed suicide.
These studies have been validated for me in personal conversations I’ve had with Vietnam Veterans. In particular, one veteran told me that he had killed quite a few people in Vietnam, but what haunted him the most was that he had killed a woman there. Because of this, he had been unable to find any peace. Then he paused and told me that he was terminal with cancer and he didn’t have long to live. He then asked me: “What do I do?”
Another Vietnam veteran who was in a parish I was assigned to as a young priest became a friend. He wouldn’t talk about his experience of the war. Yet he did share with me that there was a terrible strain in his life from the war and that he had been seeing a psychiatrist for years. He died a few years ago. The death certificate would have listed the cause as a heart attack, but I know it was from a heart that was broken by his involvement in the war.
All the articles coming out in the last few years in terms of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan echo this. In fact, a report came out which stated: “Those who acknowledged killing someone in combat were more likely to have PTSD symptoms, anger, relationship problems.” Reports have come out about the rise of divorce, domestic abuse, and abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs by returning veterans. Adm. Michael Mullen, formerly a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at one time that the military faces a suicide “crisis.” It has been reported many times that the mental health problems from those returning from our current wars threaten to overwhelm the system of care for them.
This was also reflected in a woman in one of my parishes who asked me to see her father who was Christian. He was in his 80’s and had been depressed for quite awhile. He came to talk to me and told me the source of his depression for all these years began when he was a young soldier in WWII. His outfit had captured German soldiers and then they would all of a sudden disappear. He knew they had been executed, and he said or did nothing. In fact, all he did was carry the ammunition, but he felt he had contributed to the loss of lives. He could never reconcile what he was a part of during the war, and this had stayed with him all these years since then. He had not really talked about this, which I find true with many veterans that I have met, and it doesn’t matter which war they were in.
I have witnessed this same reality in another area with men and many women who have had abortions, who I have seen over the last 18 years in coordinating Project Rachel (an incredible post abortion healing program). In this light, I remember a woman who went through Project Rachel once remarked, “none of us want to be known for the worse moment of our life.” When we continue to kill for whatever reason like Cain, we will be left with the same wound in the depth of our soul. Acts of killing, whether done through those involved in a war or other means, like the death penalty, although having different reasons for justification, ultimately fuel one’s own destructiveness.
I believe the real reason for this is that there is something intrinsic within us as human beings that resists killing other people. No matter what justification we use, when we violate this basic part of our humanity, we not only take a life, we also destroy ourselves in the process.
Fueling Our Own Destructiveness
When I heard Sister Helen Prejean (author of “Dead Man Walking”) speak she stated that the men she worked with on death row did such horrible crimes that she could see why some people felt they didn’t deserve to live, but if we execute them, she said that it will have a destructive effect on us and give the offender another victim — whether it is an individual on a jury, a warden who pulls the switch, a politician who votes for the death penalty or society as a whole.
This insight is reflected by Jim Willett (in a New York Times article, October 9, 2000) who had presided over 75 executions states: “Sometimes I wonder whether people really understand what goes on down here and the effect it has on us. Killing people, even people you know are heinous criminals, is a gruesome business and it takes a harsh toll
I met Marietta Jaeger Lane whose seven-year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped and eventually brutally murdered. At first, she said that she wanted to kill the murderer with her bare hands. In time she learned to forgive the person who did this horrendous act, but her husband could not let go of the rage and desire for revenge. Although a young man in good health, he died prematurely. Marietta said that she was convinced his inability to forgive took his life.
I was able to talk one time with Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie Marie was one of the ones killed in the Oklahoma City bombings. He said his anger made him become crazy. It wasn’t until he let go of this rage (including a meeting with Timothy McVeigh’s father which helped) that he finally found peace.
There is in our world a raging furnace of evil, violence, and death. Acts of killing, whether done by an individual in a murder, the state through an execution, by an abortionist in a clinic, or our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan, continue to fuel this raging inferno of our own destruction.
I in no way want to diminish the evil and harm caused by people that commit terrible crimes; nor the loss and heartache experienced by families whose loved one has been affected by a horrible act of violence, which has taken the gift of life, in the death of someone precious to them. But the true meaning of justice is not about death but about bringing life into our world.
We cannot end the violence around us by committing more violence, such as executions. That’s why if people are oppressed in some way, if they don’t go through a process of healing and forgiveness, when they come to power, they’ll become the new oppressors. As Richard Rohr says, “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” The cycle of violence continues.
Likewise, when a person dehumanizes anyone, even someone on death row, they end up dehumanizing themselves as well. They become the new oppressors. If we continue to kill for whatever reason, we like Cain will be left with the same anguish to endure for the rest of our lives.
Father Hewes helped found the Diocese of Rochester Human Life Commission in 1978, with our charter clearly being a consistent life ethic, five years before Cardinal Bernardin gave his famous talk at Fordham on the CLE.
For more of our posts on psychological impact of killing, see:
Abortion Doctor Says: We are the Executioners / Sarah Terzo
For more posts on the death penalty, see:
Racism and the Death Penalty / David Cruz-Uribe
Is the Death Penalty Unethical? / Hannah Cox
Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty / Destiny Herndon-de la Rosa