I’d like to offer a simple proposal that, if enacted, could generate a great deal of a most precious resource: moral clarity.
It concerns the death penalty.
Opponents of capital punishment argue that the state has no right to take a murderer’s life. Apparently, one fact that abolitionists forget or overlook is that the state is acting not only on behalf of society, but also on behalf of the murdered person and the murdered person’s family.
In order to make this as clear as possible, here is my proposal: Americans should be able to declare what they want the state to do on their behalf if they are murdered. Those who wish the state to keep their murderer alive for all his natural years should wear, let us say, a green bracelet and/or place a green dot on their driver’s license or license plate. And those who want their convicted murderer put to death can wear a red bracelet and/or have a red dot on their license. Just as I have a pink “donor” circle on my driver’s license signifying that, in case I die, I wish to provide my organs to help keep some other person alive, so I wish to make it known that if I am murdered, I do not want my murderer kept alive a day longer than legally necessary.
There are a number of reasons for recommending such a policy.
First, as noted, it is clarifying for the individual. It is easier to take a position in the abstract than when it hits home. It is one thing to oppose the death penalty when others are killed, but if you have to decide what happens if it is you who is murdered, the mind focuses with greater clarity. Before deciding which color to choose, let a woman imagine herself raped and then stabbed to death. And let her further imagine that if this happened, she now has some say in determining what will become of the person who did this to her. She is no longer a silent corpse. Her voice will be heard, perhaps even be determinative of his fate.
Likewise, the woman who truly opposes death for any murderer, no matter how heinous and sadistic his actions, will also now have the ability to speak from beyond the grave. No matter how much her family may seek the death penalty, they will have no say. Any woman — or man — who passionately opposes the death penalty under every conceivable circumstance can now help ensure that at least in his or her own case, a murderer’s life that might have been taken would now be preserved. There is no more direct way to give abolitionists the right to have a say over the fate of a murderer.
Second, such a choice gives great power to the individual. Abolitionists who live in pro-death-penalty Texas, for example, can now have a say on a matter of enormous moral magnitude. And pro-death-penalty citizens living in states that have either legally or de facto abolished the death penalty regain a sense of power over their lives (or, to be precise, their deaths). The whole American experiment has been predicated on giving individuals as much control over their own lives as possible. But this has been undermined in the last fifty years as the state has gotten ever more powerful. Giving murder victims a say over their murderer’s fate would be a small but symbolically significant step in Americans’ reasserting the importance of the individual. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate arena than in determining what happens to the person who murdered you.
As dark as thoughts of one’s own murder may be, we all think about it. And I don’t think I speak only for myself in saying that I would rest just a tiny bit easier knowing that if I were murdered, my murderer might not be allowed to watch TV, read books, exercise, develop relationships with people inside and outside of prison, surf the Internet, sing, listen to music, have his health-care needs addressed, and be visited by loved ones — while I lay in my grave.
And for those opposed to the death penalty, they, too, will be able to rest a bit easier. They will be assured that even men who came to their home, raped all the females in the family, and then set the house on fire with the family inside — as happened in Connecticut a few years ago — would never be killed by the state.
Third, it would be interesting to see if these color-coded bracelets and licenses had any effect on who gets murdered. Clearly, when the murder is a crime of passion, it is hard to imagine that the would-be murderer would stop himself upon noticing a red bracelet or a red dot on a license plate. But crimes of passion are generally not, in any event, punished by death. On the other hand, in murders that could be capital crimes, it is possible (not necessarily likely, but possible) that a would-be murderer (or, even more likely, his accomplice, if there were one) might just rethink going ahead with the crime.
Fourth, choosing which color bracelet or dot would not only forces people to confront their own consciences, it would undoubtedly engender deep discussions with others. To cite but one example, it can surely help singles who are dating. If you’re against the death penalty, and your date drives up with a red bracelet and/or dot on his license plate, you’ll either have a far deeper discussion than you would otherwise have had at dinner, or you’ll spare yourself the time and effort of a date that will probably lead nowhere.
These are some of the arguments for the plan. I can’t think of one good argument against it — unless you’re an abolitionist who is fearful of seeing red.
— Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. He may be contacted through his website,dennisprager.com.