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An execution is not simply death. It is just as different from the privation of life as a concentration camp is from prison. … For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life. – Albert Camus, Reflections on the Guillotine, Resistance, Rebellion & Death.
A few weeks ago one of our faithful, inquiring readers at BahaiTeachings wrote: “How do Baha’i followers justify the death penalty? It is a huge sticking point with your practice. Just my point of view and looking for an answer.”
By sheer coincidence, when he sent us his comment, I had already begun writing this series of essays on the death penalty; and on that exact same day I voted by mail in the general election here in California. In this election, every voter in my state has to make a daunting choice about capital punishment, and must decide between two non-partisan ballot initiatives regarding the death penalty.
Proposition 62 repeals California’s death penalty. Proposition 66 seeks to keep and bolster the death penalty by speeding up the typically lengthy capital case appeal process in the courts. If Proposition 62 passes, the State of California will lose its right to carry out executions. If Proposition 66 passes, the State will execute more people. I had to decide, as did all of California’s voters, whether I wanted to stop or speed up capital punishment for the 700+ people currently on Death Row in my state.
Consider that stark choice for a moment. How would you vote? Few elections actually result in immediate life or death decisions. But in this election, and in many similar capital punishment referendums around the world, your vote on the death penalty could actually result in someone’s execution—or save that person’s life.
How do you feel about this tough moral question on the death penalty? Some feel that capital punishment is necessary for justice, closure and deterrence; while others feel that it amounts to needlessly cruel and unusual punishment—and that the state should never take the role of a murderer.
Global opinion polling on the death penalty shows that capital punishment tends to polarize people. The Gallup Organization, which has polled many different countries on the question, finds support for and opposition to the death penalty at roughly equal levels in many if not most nations. One non-profit group, The Death Penalty Information Center, regularly collects and collates various polls from different countries and reports their results. Those polls indicate that a slight majority (52%) of Russians, for instance, support capital punishment; while two-thirds of Australians favor life imprisonment for the crime of murder rather than the death penalty. In Great Britain, death penalty support has recently fallen to below 50% for the first time ever. In the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans (49%) support capital punishment, while 42% oppose it—the lowest level of support in more than four decades.
Most of the world’s countries have abolished capital punishment, either in practice or by law. Fifty-eight countries still utilize the death penalty; while 134 countries have made it illegal or no longer use it in practice. Six countries have retained it only for special circumstances like war crimes and genocide.
The United Nations has put forward the Second Optional Protocol to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which calls for a moratorium on capital punishment—and 81 countries have ratified it. The European Union prohibits the death penalty, as does the Council of Europe. Only two of the world’s developed democratic governments—the United States and Japan—still allow it; and 19 of America’s 50 states outlaw the death penalty; soon to be 20 states if California’s Proposition 62 passes.
From a worldwide perspective, surveys show, support for and use of capital punishment has declined during the past five decades. That long-term global trend, however, only affects 40% of the planet’s population—since 60% still live in death penalty nations like China, Japan, North Korea and the U.S.
So how do the Baha’i teachings deal with punishment for the most heinous crimes—do they prescribe the death penalty or allow for life imprisonment? The answer is both:
The law of Baha’u’llah prescribes the death penalty for murder and arson, with the alternative of life imprisonment. – The Most Holy Book, p. 204.
…should anyone deliberately take another’s life, him also shall ye put to death. … Should ye condemn the arsonist and the murderer to life imprisonment, it would be permissible according to the provisions of the Book. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, pp. 203-204.
“…affirmed that while capital punishment is permitted, an alternative, ‘life imprisonment,’ has been provided ‘whereby the rigours of such a condemnation can be seriously mitigated.’ He states that ‘Baha’u’llah has given us a choice and has, therefore, left us free to use our own discretion within certain limitations…’” – Ibid., pp. 204-205.
Clearly, then, a future system of Baha’i jurisprudence offers society a choice between capital punishment and life imprisonment for the worst crimes. Which one would you vote for? Morally, which is right?
Please follow along as we explore those important questions in the next essays in this series. We’ll examine the Baha’i teachings and laws on capital punishment and on killing, explore how Baha’is view such a critical moral issue, and try to foresee a future state of society where justice prevails. I’ll tell you which ballot proposition I voted for, too.