Over at Better Nation, Malc has written an interesting post exploring the tension between his view that the main rationale for opposing the death penalty is quite simply that "killing is wrong", and his growing sense that killing might possibly be justified in some circumstances. He gives the example of a scenario in which you could save the lives of twenty people by killing one person who was about to attack them.
I think the answer to this conundrum is that the real rationale for opposing the death penalty is actually subtly different from the one Malc suggests - it's not that killing is in itself always wrong, merely that it's wrong for the state (or anyone else) to kill when it's not absolutely essential, ie. for any purpose other than to save the lives of innocents. Few people would say that it's wrong to take a life if you can be sure the person concerned is about to commit a murder and there is absolutely no other way of stopping them. But capital punishment in the modern world has got absolutely nothing to do with such a scenario. Perhaps in the chaos of war or an extreme natural disaster, there might be circumstances in which it is literally impossible to keep a dangerous murderer under lock and key, and the risk of that person killing again is so great that it is deemed necessary to execute him to protect others. I still don't personally think even that could be morally justified - unless there was certainty that an innocent person would die as a result of inaction, I don't believe the authorities should be playing God. But, all the same, I can see how others might reach the conclusion that such an act would be rational and responsible. In a stable country, however, public protection is never even the remotest consideration in judicial murder, because there's always the option of keeping the most dangerous criminals securely behind bars for the rest of their lives. In the modern US, executions are thus always utterly needless, senseless killings.
And an important twist on Malc's moral dilemma : what if you could save twenty innocent lives by killing one person who is also innocent? That is essentially the US justification for dropping the atomic bombs on Japan - an act which by any modern definition must have constituted a war crime, deliberately targeting as it did civilians (including children) by the thousand. Many more people would have died, the argument goes, if those innocents hadn't been massacred by the US. That premise is of course hotly disputed by many historians, but let's concede the point for the sake of argument. Is it sufficient to justify such carnage?
It's occurred to me before that a good way of looking at it is this. Supposing that, after the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, the British government had not sent off a naval taskforce to retrieve the islands, but had instead instructed the SAS to kidnap twenty members of Galtieri's closest family, and execute them one by one until the Argentinians surrendered. Using the 'Hiroshima defence', if such a strategy had worked it could clearly have been said to have averted the war and saved 1000 lives. But would that have justified cold-blooded murder? I think I know (or perhaps I should say I hope I know) what most people's answer would be. And yet that's just twenty deaths, compared to something on the scale of genocide in Hiroshima and Nagasaki - which nevertheless 'feels' all right to a lot of people, simply because (as with all air attacks) it was effectively carried out by remote control.