Sunday, October 31, 2010

How soon should this body be a corpse?

Society has a duty to protect people from being harmed, but has no right to exact revenge. Whether it is murder or legal execution, any killing is simply wrong. Neutralizing and preventing harm does not require vengeance and retaliation.

Matthieu Ricard on forgiveness

Robert Chender, who’s co-teaching the Intro to Buddhism class, suggested this week that we check out a video on the Huffington Post of Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk with a delightful French accent, talking about forgiveness.

The comment above struck me. I work at a newspaper in Connecticut, and aside from the election, the biggest story in the state is the trial of Steven Hayes, one of two men charged in the horrific torture and murder of a woman and her two daughters. (The husband and father was beaten and tied up in the basement but escaped). Hayes never denied taking part, but prosecutors wouldn’t agree to life in prison – in large part because the survivor is determined that Hayes and his co-defendant should be put to death by the state. A jury convicted Hayes after a trial that detailed the unbearably awful things that happened. The same jury now is considering whether to sentence him to death. Under Connecticut law, jurors considering the death penalty weigh mitigating and aggravating factors.

Just as an individual can fall prey to hatred, so can a whole society. MR

In a recent poll, 76 percent of Connecticut residents say they support the death penalty for Hayes – 10 percentage points more than support the death penalty itself.

A human being is not basically bad, but can easily become so. Our real enemy is therefore not the person who has fallen prey to hatred but hatred itself. MR

If hatred is the enemy, then what about those who are doing the hating? People I consider reasonable and compassionate see no gray here – he should died for what he did. Carrying out the death penalty in Connecticut takes a long time; there are mandatory appeals built into the process. If he wants to die, maybe keeping him alive is a worse punishment.

From a Buddhist point of view, the basic goodness of a human being remains deep within, even if he or she deviates into a very malevolent person. The simile given is that of a piece of gold that remains unchanged even when buried in filth. There is always a possibility of cleansing the filth. This does not amount to ignoring the base quality of the filth but to knowing that it can be removed and that the gold within it can shine again.

Hayes wants to die. He didn’t want his public defenders to argue against the death penalty. He’s tried to commit suicide. He became ill with what his lawyer described as seizures the day crime scene photos were shown in court. Does that show remorse? Is that evidence that he’s changed?

On Friday, the front-page headline on the trial story said: Show Me Your Soul is Worth Saving.

It referred to a letter Hayes’ brother had written in April after Steven Hayes tried to kill himself in prison with an overdose of prescription drugs. "If you don't want to cause us pain, allow what has to unfold without hindrance," his brother wrote, adding that he had "no respect" for Steven's self-professed wish to die.

"The process in front of you and the ensuing punishment is where you will find redemption, nowhere else," the brother wrote. "I have been told that every soul is worth saving, no matter what the actions. Show me your soul is worth saving, and I'll do what I have the capacities to do."

How does one show that one’s soul is worth saving?

I believe that every sentient being is worth saving, that every person is basically good. But is this true when their actions are so bad?

I may be almost alone in not wanting to flip the switch on Steven Hayes. I don’t approve, accept, or understand what he did. But I believe that somewhere inside the shriveled sad man who sits in court, there is a basic goodness that got buried so deep he can’t find it. I wouldn’t expect him to act from that place, but I can’t find it in my heart to want him dead. I don’t think it will bring the peace his victims’ family seeks. Hatred only breeds hatred. His death won’t diminish their pain.

In short, contemplating the horror of other's crimes should enhance in one's own mind a boundless love and compassion for all beings, rather than hatred of a few. MR

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