Tue 18 Mar 2014
Somewhere Aristotle says something to the effect that: “The truth is like the broadside of a barn. Everybody hits it.” By this, I presume he meant that everybody grasps some part of the truth. Not necessarily the whole, not necessarily with clarity or precision, not necessarily with confidence about which part, but nobody gets it 100% wrong.
I would qualify Aristotle’s “everybody” with “everybody intelligent and thinking.” The qualifier “intelligent” is not meant to mark a hoity-toity upper limit such as only “us educated folk” or “we PhDs” or “me and my fellow professional academics” but rather a lower limit. IQs in some people plummet to such depths that some people are no longer to be counted among Aristotle’s “everybody.” Similarly, “thinking” is not meant to indicate some rarefied phenomenon but rather to exclude obvious absences of the use of intelligence such as when a person is sleeping, under hypnosis, insane, intoxicated, whacked out on drugs, and the like.
The practical takeaway from Aristotle’s remark is, I think, the following. Whenever people (people intelligent and thinking) think something is true, then the fair way of dealing with them is always to search for what part of the truth they have grasped and to give them credit for it. Even when we are sure that their beliefs or convictions are ultimately wrong, we should always attempt to determine how they too have hit the barn in some fashion. This is respecting another person as a rational being.
Here is a case in point. The other day I found Frank Keating in an essay of his expressing a sentiment that I have heard many other people express at different times. Frank Keating is clearly intelligent. He went to Georgetown as an undergrad, earned a JD, served as a U.S. Attorney and as Associate Attorney General in the DOJ, was twice elected Governor of Oklahoma, and in the early 2000’s was picked to head the investigation of U.S. Catholic priests in the child sex abuse scandal. He also was clearly thinking when he wrote “The Death Penalty: What’s All the Debate About?” In the essay, he tells the story of Roger Dale Stafford, who was the first person executed in Oklahoma on his watch as governor. He asks the reader:
“Tell me what you do with a Roger Dale Stafford who, south of Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City, waved down a car with a staff sergeant of the Air Force and his wife and their eight-year-old son inside. Stafford took the staff sergeant over the hill and shot him in the face, killing him. This was a robbery, yet he also took his wife over the same berm and shot and killed her. Then he came down to the truck, and, whimpering in the back of the cab of the truck, wrapped up in blankets trying to get away from it all, was the eight-year-old son; Stafford fired until he was out of bullets into the back of the truck to make the whimpering stop. Then he went to a steakhouse in Oklahoma City, a family restaurant. As it was closing up, he herded four fifteen-year-olds and two adults into the freezer and killed them execution-style while taking money from the cash register. Now, what do you do with someone like that?”
Frank Keating’s own answer to this question is that we should execute people like Roger Dale Stafford, and he, as Governor, allowed the execution of Roger Dale Stafford to continue without a stay in 1995. Thus, Frank Keating is in favor of the death penalty.
As far as I can tell, Frank Keating’s answer to his question is wrong because the death penalty is wrong. We do not get to execute people, not even people as depraved as Roger Dale Stafford. Thus, at least so far, I think Frank Keating has missed the broadside of the barn.
But the sentiment that I am interested in is Frank Keating’s explanation of why he thinks the death penalty is justified. He says:
“According to my sense of ethics, my sense of morals, my sense of right and wrong, you don’t chop off someone’s hand for bouncing a check, but somebody who kills nine human beings forfeits the right to live. That is my sense of values, my sense of ethics. I look at someone like that [Roger Dale Stafford] and I think to myself that this good earth, this wonderful land, is too good for that person. I honestly believe that.”
What, if anything, is right about this heartfelt conviction?
Perhaps many things. But I can find two things right, and I give Frank Keating credit for recognizing those two.
First, Frank Keating is right that this good earth, this wonderful land, is too good for Roger Dale Stafford. But it is also too good for me, you, and every other person that lives, has lived, or will live in this country or on this planet. I can find nothing in what I have ever done or in what anybody else has ever done that makes me or them deserving of the goodness and splendor of this life. This life, this world, is a great gift that none of us have earned. Nor can I find any evidence that this world or some God owes us this life, this world. We puny human beings are simply undeserving. We don’t earn this life, and nobody and nothing owes it to us. This truth is piercingly clear in scoundrels like Roger Dale Stafford. But it is also obvious in the glorious, crescendos of life: when we fall in love; when our children are born; when we melt in the panorama of a high mountain just climbed; and when we finally see the light of truth. We do not deserve so much of what we enjoy. But from that fact it does not follow that we get to willfully deprive others of this life, this world.
Second, Frank Keating is right that banishment or exclusion can be a reasonable and justified response to wrongdoing. Time-out for little children, suspension from school, eviction from movie theaters, barring from Wall Street, ostracism from Athens, transportation to North America and later to Australia, removal to penal colonies like Devil’s Island, and placement in the Phantom Zone (as in Superman comics) might all be perfectly good ways to deal with wrongdoers. Banishment by death, however, is no part of the broadside of the barn.