The pages of history are written not in words, but in deeds. And as in glancing at the past, we see certain of such pages, telling the story with emphasis, which at the time they were written were too mingled with the common life to attract attention, so do certain of our customs mark our place in nature and tell that which in the confusion of sounds we do not hear. Nevertheless, through our law of Capital Punishment, we are writing a page in letters of flaming red, and in unmistakable language, proclaiming to the yet unborn our narrow conceptions of life, our lack of finer instincts, and our ignorance of actual law. It is a bitter comment on our civilization; a declaration that our consciousness is bounded by the grave, and that within these narrow limits we have drawn for ourselves we see no links which bind us to our fellows.
That we find this among our laws, is perhaps not strange. It is a part of everything else, and partakes of the general flavor. Good people, well meaning, and those of tender heart indorse it, and it is not the outcome of the lack of these qualities, but of the lack of a rational philosophy of life. Those who do not express their creed in the words, "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die," yet do, if they acquiesce in this law, confess their absolute lack of any sense of coherence in nature. Why should that which is, have no relation with that which is to come? And why should not every man who is found on this earth, be here as part of a plan? Is it a crazy universe we are in, without order, system or intelligent intention? Or is there that in nature which goes to suggest that the very hairs of our head are indeed numbered? And why should we imagine that we are rid of a man because we have taken the liberty to remove him from his body? Such near-sightedness is puerile.
If we see a bird of evil omen fly in at our window, cross our chamber, and fly out, do we infer he existed only while in our sight? And might he not again fly in the window? What would we say of a family who had a troublesome member, and thrust him out of the door for their own comfort or safety? Yet that is practically what is done to a public offender. For the sake of the other members, it is said, the effort is made to thrust him out of the human family. Supposing such a thing were possible, he must go somewhere, and if so, is he probably less troublesome there? These questions might naturally arise, it would seem, in any mind, with or without a satisfactory philosophy of life, and from the simple ground of expediency might give rise to uncertainty as to the wisdom of this law. But suppose that the very fact that a man is on earth with us, shows in some way a link between us, and that whether we like it or not we must deal with his problems sooner or later; we simply evade the question by killing him. And a postponed duty never grows easier to meet.
The mental confusion that exists as to the absolute right or wrong of this law, arises from an improper focusing of the mind on the subject. Many of its opposers have a blurred vision because they have turned their mental lens upon the superficial region of sentiment, and here the images are always distorted. For purely sentimental reasons they would abolish the law, and naturally, in their dealing with the criminal from the standpoint of sentiment, they only pet into more active life that bundle of evil tendencies. Such methods arouse the disgust of another class, who mean to stand for justice, and out of consideration for the innocent, they will not spare the guilty. This seems to be an improvement on the flabby sentimental view of the question, for it is, without doubt, a devil incarnate that is in existence, and he deserves and should have no toleration. He is an expression of an evil disintegrating force, and should be fought to the death without pity, sympathy or mercy. And there should be no rest until he is extinct.
But the difficulty with these would-be dealers of justice, is that they, too, have improperly focused their mental lenses. They have centered them entirely upon the diseased personality, instead of adjusting them in turn upon the whole of that complex being called the man. Had they penetrated deep into the nature, they might have found a divine spark, which could be fanned in the very process of killing the devil on the surface. And also, as a part of the lack of this proper mental focusing, the curious belief exists, that killing him consists in letting him out of his body. What an easy method that would be! But does it bear on its face any measure of probability?
We feel here on earth influences from one another of various kinds; of thought, of feeling of all shades. There is a constant interchange of forces of one sort and another which are not material, and are not conveyed by material means. We know the atmosphere is full of such things — anyone knows it who stops to think. Now, knowing it to be the case that such currents are in the atmosphere, without material evidence, why should so many infer that at the death of a body every energy previously working through it immediately leaves the earth? Is it not at least as likely that in liberating a man from his body, we may place at greater liberty than already existed certain evil forces, which plainly do not belong to any spiritual place or life; and that we might more efficiently protect the innocent, by simply caging him? There is nothing in nature to suggest that that which exists suddenly becomes non-existent. Two things may happen to it. Either it may become latent, ready under the proper conditions to become active, or it may be transmuted. If by killing the body we render these forces latent, we have, as I said, only postponed the question, and on the other hand, is it conceivable that there is anything in legalized murder which will transmute them into good?
The problem can never be faced with any possibility of solving it, until there is a rational philosophy of life. The duality of man's nature must be understood; the still further complexity which is included in that duality; and the nature of so-called life and death. Humanity cannot evolve such a philosophy as a matter of course, but when such a one is presented to it, by those who are above it, it must be open enough, earnest enough, unprejudiced enough to examine into it, and see how much it will clarify the ideas, otherwise it can never evolve, and must go on eternally doing stupid things, blundering itself into deeper and deeper confusion. There is only one way to kill a criminal, and that is to transmute the evil within him into good, and the only way to do that is to recognize something else within him which is good; evoke it and gain its co-operation. Even gods could not bring about this change without such co-operation.
I know there are many noble efforts in this direction, which have crystallized into institutions; and if these were based on a clear conception of the nature of man, and there were a consciousness that innate divinity exists even in the body of a criminal, so vivid as to awaken that consciousness in him and revive his hope and courage; and if there were sufficient wisdom to work in harmony with that innate divinity to transform the devil, we might witness a killing process which would be thorough, and which would begin to show itself in the social body at large by a decrease of crime.
But until the day for this dawns, until there is a general willingness at least to examine into a philosophy which has been freely offered to the world, this must remain a problem too big for us, an index of our civilization, a blot upon our history.
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