Last week, on Wednesday, September 3rd, at six in the evening local
time, Florida executed Paul Hill. He had been convicted of murder. He shot to death a doctor who provided
abortions, and the doctor's bodyguard.
I watched the coverage on the television newscasts. The dark
and stormy background was a nice touch.
This summary from William Saletan in Slate
magazine sets out where things stand.
A decade ago, a doctor named John Britton performed abortions in
north Florida. Anti-abortion activists called that murder. So, in 1994, Hill ended the murder. He shot Britton
and Britton's driver to death. Hill called it "justifiable homicide." On Tuesday, Hill repeated his argument:
"I say to the pro-life community that if you believe abortion is lethal force, you should uphold the force needed to stop
it." He expressed hope that God would "use my actions to save innocent children."
Other folks in Florida don't like murderers any more than Hill did.
But they weren't sure Britton deserved that label. The murderer they were sure about was Hill. So, a jury convicted
him of murder, a judge sentenced him to death, and Governor Jeb Bush signed the death warrant. "I believe in the
protecting of innocent life," Bush said Tuesday. "I also believe it is not inconsistent to suggest that when a person
in a premeditated fashion, convicted by a jury of his peers, murders two people and [is sentenced] to death, that carrying
out that sentence is appropriate." Bush's brother, the president of the United States, has long defended the death
penalty as a deterrent to the taking of other innocent lives.
Joe Scheidler, a well-known anti-abortion activist, complained that
Hill had been denied a fair trial because Hill hadn't been allowed to argue that the killings were justified to save lives.
"I am not morally opposed to the death penalty," said Scheidler, but "Hill did something wrong that he thought
was right. ... It was not malicious in the sense that he was just trying to kill a doctor. He was doing it to save lives."
Now fanatics are threatening the lives of the officials who issued
and administered Hill's death sentence. Bush, the judge, and two other Florida officials have received ominous letters,
each containing a bullet. The message is obvious: Kill Hill, and we'll kill you.
So, here's where things stand: People are threatening to kill officials
in Florida for killing Paul Hill for killing John Britton for killing unborn babies. And if they fulfill those threats,
you can be sure that they'll be killed, too.
Well, what to make of this. I forwarded the William Saletan
column to my friends.
Saletan's final comment was this:
I've long defended the death penalty in principle, if not always
in practice, on the grounds that some people do things so awful that they simply deserve it. Their guilt voids their
right to life. But this chain of killing gives me pause. The word "innocent" keeps popping up in the Hill saga,
each time as a basis for saying that it's OK for us to kill them but not for them to kill us. Babies are innocent, but
Britton is guilty, so it's OK to kill him. Britton was innocent, but Hill is guilty, so its OK to kill Hill. Only
once in this story has a jury determined guilt, and that verdict does merit particular respect. But the longer the chain
of killing gets, the harder it is to spin complex theories about why one party is guilty and the other is innocent, instead
of just saying it's wrong to kill.
My comment was
You all know my position, but this is quite funny. Bill Saletan
gets a bit wrapped around his own axle. If you're not like me and thus you agree that under lots of different
circumstances it's a really quite good thing to kill other people, with relish and glee, but not in all circumstances,
then this leads to lots of problems. We will find Saddam Hussein and kill him I'm sure, and pretty soon.
Should we? You all say, of course. But that's a Paul Hill argument.
My good friend in Atlanta replied -
Talk about axle-wrap, try this:
While I am against the death penalty, my objection is not based on the principle that we have no moral right to execute
folks we find guilty of murder, but on a belief that we do (and probably always will do) such a sloppy job of finding just
about anyone guilty of just about anything, that it would be a serious shame for us to execute even one person who did not
do what someone claims he did.
But in fact, although I am against capital punishment as policy,
I think society has, in principle, as much right to ultimately decide to execute an actual guilty person as it does to decide
to allow the aborting of a fetus.
But Saletan points out an interesting dilemma, which is that of
trying to figure out the mindset of those on what I consider the farside of this issue: Does an anti-abortion terrorist
who murders a doctor for performing abortions also believe, incidentally, in capital punishment as a legitimate way of dealing
with murderers? And why should that not also be applied to he, himself? No, I don't mean as an acceptable form
of dishing out martyrdom to some self-styled "Onward Christian Soldier," but as an actual way for society to render punishment
to him for doing something he really should not have done?
Yeah, well, that paradox has been mentioned often, and is a bit
obvious and hackneyed. But wait, it gets worse, as we come at this from another direction:
Since abortion is legal, his committing murder is not to prevent
other "murders" but only other "killings." In other words, his action is based not on law, but on ... what? God's
law? And he knows what God's law is because he reads the Bible? The same Bible that says you shouldn't kill anyone?
Before Hill left, to anyone's knowledge, did he ever connect those dots for us?
(Maybe that should have been part of his punishment, to try to connect
those dots and make some actual sense of what he did. I'll bet making real sense probably would have been much harder on him
than just lying down on a gurney and waiting for martyrdom.)
So, okay, maybe it's not so much the Bible, per se, but the idea
that he knew that God doesn't like killing, in which case he should do one or two killings to prevent whole scads of other
killings. So would this be a good argument for, say, shooting down a soldier because he might go to war somewhere and
kill - maybe not "murder" in the eyes of the law, but nonetheless "kill" - a big bunch of other human beings?
And if so, is this an argument based on real religious conviction,
or just something this guy came up with on his own? But doesn't every murderer think he has a good reason to murder
someone? Ask Tim McVeigh whether he had regrets. Did Hill agree that Tim did the right thing? I'm sure Osama
and the Nine-Eleven Gang thought they were doing the right thing, too; did he agree with them?
I have a hard time regretting that this Paul Hill was executed,
but I must admit I am not comforted by the fact that he died thinking he did something good, and that he, like all those suicide
bombers from elsewhere in the world, considered himself (and he actually said this!) "honored" to be a "martyr" who will surely
find rewards in Heaven for what he's done! I mean, what the hell was this cementhead thinking?
I do wish he had stayed around at least long enough to try to explain
what would be wrong with the reasoning of, say, the daughter of the man he murdered, who might (and I'm just saying might)
think in her own mind that it would now be okay - maybe not in the eyes of the law, maybe or maybe not in the eyes of the
vengeful God of some weird verse in the Bible, but maybe only in her own eyes -and, after all, didn't Paul Hill take his actions
on his own authority, rather than specifically that of God's, or the laws of the land? - that it might be okay for her
to seek out and murder one of Paul Hill's children.
Not that she would, mind you! That would be wrong, and what's more,
she undoubtedly knows it! But that's the difference between her and him, and also between her and all those goofballs
out there, sending bullets through the mail.
PS: By the way, where do you stand on abortion?
Well, I guess you wouldn't then agree that even if an innocent person
is executed by mistake, now and then, the fact they we executed the one bad guy is far more important, as a
matter of justice. Even if we goof up on one, or ten, a hundred, or a thousand, that's kind of a necessary cost for
doing the "just" thing to the "bad" guy? Hey, nothing is perfect.
The pissed-off families of the "wrongly" executed don't see the
bigger picture. They're just whining.
Just wars after all do create blameless civilian casualties, to
make a parallel - we had to get kill Hitler and the bad guys even if sometimes women, children and harmless old folks were
in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have heard that argument. Geez, I don't know.
I heard the Christian right guys on the panel shows regarding the Hill execution saying the Bible says, really, thou
shall not "murder" - not thou shall not "kill." Killing is okay. God does it. Various
Bible heroes do it. Killing and murder are real different. Are translation skills the issue here?
Even if so, you're right, the question of when killing is justified - and exactly where that justification is
codified - is puzzling. I do sense - from this Hill fellow to that Judge Moore fellow and his Ten Commandments,
to Osama and the Islamic militant purists - that there is the agreed upon civil-criminal law, but then there is a higher
law which seems to be God's law, from the Bible or the Koran or whatever book you're using. The second higher
law trumps the first worldly law, of course. Trumping those two is the even higher law - your conscience or
your faith that you know what God wants and, damn, you just have to do what you know he wants - because it's right.
Hell of a way to run a country....
Abortion. I have a hard time thinking of "the unborn" as being the same as folks who managed to make it all
the way out and breathe and think and feel and move around and all the rest. So, as we've covered before, the issue
comes down to where "life" begins. At breach with the slap and cry? At the end of the second trimester?
At the end of first trimester? At conception? Before conception with consideration of "the act" - which is, I
think, the real old-fashioned Catholic view that forbids birth control efforts of any kind. There God "intends" life
and births all over the place and you shouldn't get in the way of that, in any way at all. Don't mess with Him.
He said be fruitful and multiply. He meant it. And God doesn't kid around.
I do remember that Monty Python production number "Every Sperm is Sacred" with all the dancing and parading Catholics.
It was a bit cruel. But funny.
Anyway, if the "where life begins" scale runs from mere lustful thoughts implanted in your mind by God so the world
is properly populated, on one end of the scale, all the way to life beginning with the slap and the first breath on the other
end, I'm more toward the second end of the scale. So I'm pretty much with the pro-choice folks.
Abortion isn't murder. No victim. Maybe. I've been told I'm very wrong. And going to hell.
The second element is that I feel, since an abortion often has to do with a tremendously difficult moral and health
decisions on the part of someone who I don't know and who doesn't know me, and may involve economic issues along with all
the soul-searching, and involve that individual's relationship to their religion and all the rest... given all that, I'm not
sure saying, "No, you CANNOT EVER do that," is any of my business. Or the business of the government to which I pay
taxes and for which I vote.
Heck, they already execute lots of folks in my name, and wage war in my name all around the world. That's enough
Perhaps my friends and I should lighten up.