The fire slowly burned his flesh, and the iron bed upon which he was strapped must have glowed a dull red. Saint Lawrence suffered as he was slowly burned at the stake. He called out to the judge: “Let my body be turned; one side is broiled enough.” Joan of Arc was turned to ash within a roaring flame, and the blood of thousands guillotined during the Reign of Terror stained the soil of France. The lives of so many have been stripped away by governments across the ages.
Last night, ours was no different. John Allen Muhammad was executed at 9:11 p.m. by the Commonwealth of Virginia, as his victims’ families looked on. Cheryll Witz, like many of these relatives, felt she had a reason to be there: “He basically watched my dad breathe his last breath, why shouldn’t I watch his last breath?”
Mohammed and then-17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo were the snipers behind the 2002 attacks in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. I was in middle school at the time, so my own memories of the area’s reaction are hazy. However, it was clear that the shooting inspired anxiety and fear in a city weighed down by the September 11th attacks only a year earlier. A rumor that a white van was seen leaving the scene after every attack meant every white van was stopped and inspected. My school wouldn’t allow students to cross the street between buildings. I have memories of crossing the grassy East Terrace with my choir by running in zig-zags to make it harder for the sniper to shoot us. At the end of three long weeks, six had been killed in Maryland, my home state, three in Virginia and one in Washington. The killings were senseless, and the emotional toll on the city was large. The two men were eagerly brought to justice. Maryland sentenced Muhammad to six life terms in prison — one for each victim.
However, seven years later, Muhammad is dead, the result of a capital conviction in Virginia.
Though Muhammad clearly disdained the lives of others, Virginia’s decision to administer capital punishment is not an appropriate response. Human life cannot be reduced to choice. The state should not condemn our humanity because of our choices, but seek to rehabilitate those who make evil ones.
The state’s prerogative to prevent individuals from being murdered makes the state a handmaiden to a higher judge of life. When the state is allowed to judge who deserves to be killed, we allow the handmaiden to violently seize the throne and become a tyrant over us. The death penalty, unlike any other law or penalty, places the state in the highest seat of judgment — the only seat that can judge a human’s nature — a seat it should not have.
We are not capable of judging if another individual deserves to die. If we affirm the legitimacy of the state to use the death penalty, then we believe that humans are capable of judging the worth of another’s life.
Killing in war or in self-defense is very different — it does not constitute a judgment of the worth of another human being. When attacked, our reaction, whether it results in the death of the attacker or not, reflects only our need to protect ourselves. We begin to judge only once the circumstances are under our control.
One might contend, however, that the state can derive an understanding of a criminal’s nature from his choices and determine the appropriate penalty. The state is judging a choice, and in doing so weights this choice equally with a human life. But can a single choice in a human’s life be judged to forfeit every other moment and choice, an entire life? If we acknowledge that we cannot judge the worth of another human being, we should not reduce life to a set of choices in order to let us off the hook.
The state should not see morality as a series of choices, but instead as a question of nature. The state should only intervene to protect life or rehabilitate it. Last night, Virginia did neither. It usurped the seat of judgment by deciding that life of John Allen Muhammad was one that should be taken
Isabel Marin is a sophomore in Trumbull College.