What Does it Take?

Here is a news report video concerning a member of the National Guard who attempted to pass to al-Qaida strategies on how best to kill the crews of armored vehicles, without destroying the vehicles themselves so that they can be captured by al-Qaida. The man was caught in a sting by Federal agents, during which he offered to defect from his unit and join al-Qaida in Iraq, and was just sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 19 years.

Many on the blogosphere are asking, "Why is this man not being executed for treason?"

He intended for his fellow soldiers to die; he offered to fight for the enemy; he gave information that would have placed our soldiers in great danger. He would seem to meet every standard for execution, with the sole mitigating factor being that the men he spoke to were not actually enemies of this country, as he believed them to be. Yet the actual effect of his treason should be irrelevant; that he acted to harm his brothers in arms should be enough.

In the United States, the death penalty is for all practical purposes restricted to cases of murder. While this limitation is logical enough, given a particular line of thought, it ends up mitigating the perceived severity of monstrous crimes that leave their victims alive. One who kidnaps a young child and commits unspeakable crimes, physical and sexual, over an arbitrarily long period would not be liable for the death penalty. Neither, apparently, would a traitor to his country and comrades who had the good fortune to be caught before he killed anyone personally.

The death penalty has many justifcations; chief among them, I think, is that it serves to identify a class of crimes worthy of the worst punishment society can offer. By that standard, America considers premeditated murder of a single victim to be qualitatively worse that treason to the whole, such that the murderer may be executed and the traitor may not. To be sure, the murderer is worthy of death; but to say that the traitor is not, is to say that America as a whole is less valuable than the least of its citizens.

Jewish law prescribes the death penalty for a range of crimes beyond murder. Many of these crimes threaten the very fabric of society; examples are adultery, and kidnapping persons and selling them into slavery. Similarly, in the Philippines drug trafficking is a capital offense. In my view, it is deeply irresponsible for America to restrict the death penalty as it has; while execution must surely be used sparingly and with great care, we have an obligation to defend our society just as surely as those who live in it.

Why have we become unwilling to say that our society is sacrosanct?

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