Thursday, March 03, 2005

Shades of Supreme Gray


Tweaking the law is often about determining shades of gray, which gray is too dark and which is just light enough, but such tweaking also points to the need for the judiciary to make more definitive decisions.

This has been a week of some notable and relevant cases before the United States Supreme Court. I'm particularly interested in two here: the case concerning whether or not minors should be eligible for the death penalty and the case regarding the appropriateness of allowing government property to host displays of the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols and doctrine.

There is freedom, and then there are ethics, then there are morals, and then there are laws. Laws are, by their very nature, restrictions of freedom. They are meant to represent "fair" and consistent compromises in what we think we "ought" to do and "ought not" do. Laws are altruistic in that they intend to extend and "protect" the spread of justice "for all."

But then the many centuries' old fight continues to get just the right shade of gray.

Let's say two guys, one in Texas, one in Minnesota, each kill someone - doesn't matter who - but by similar means and with similar motives. One is just shy of his 18th birthday, and one has been 18 just a few days. The United States is the only country on Earth that might allow the death penalty for the juvenile (as opposed to "minor") offender, which now it seems the court has decided is wrong.

State and federal laws will come into play regarding their sentencing and incarceration, and immediately the arbitrariness of laws, ages and dates come into play. This week, the Supreme Court ruled that it is now Unconstitutional for a minor to receive the death penalty because that should be considered "cruel and unusual punishment." The reasoning behind the high court's ruling deals with the relative sympathy we should have for a 17 year old vs. an 18 year old. That 18th birthday has never been such big stuff as it is now. In one day, you are tossed into the heap as an adult, from child to adult. But why should our sympathy and punishment decrease on that birthday or at any time in a person's life? That is the truly moral question the states and the feds must rightly consider. If it's wrong when you're 17, what defense is there to say any death sentence is right? And is it ever what's best?

If we were to extend the court's reasoning, we would have a good moral case for ending the death penalty for all citizens of any age.

Tough guys in this country say we have to keep the death penalty as a deterrant, but most other nations enjoy much lower crime rates without inflicting the death penalty as a deterrant. So that defense has got to go. Perhaps the U.S. wants to keep the death penalty because, as the reigning empire in power, we like to idea of using force and the threat of murder to contain and control our "enemies."

But it seems in parenting and in nation-building, sympathy and positive encouragement and civil training work much better than grim and angry incarceration. We must be a very unhappy and fearful country to uphold the death penalty (and while we're at it, a huge military) with such fierce and old-fashioned devotion.

Too bad our civil religion is not a more kindly and compassionate one.

And speaking of religion, the Supreme Court has been hearing cases about two displays of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of state capitols, in Texas and Kentucky. The court, making a fool of itself, seems to feel the stone monument in Texas might be OK (it's outside on the capitol grounds) while the tablets inside the Kentucky statehouse are, well, they're not so sure.

Since when should we or our courts be allowed to fuss over such tit for tat? Why not make it clear - NO allowing religious symbols or official religious acts on public property? The hoodlums on the right and the shameful sheep in the middle may say "this is a Christian nation," but it is not. It is a secular nation, ideally, so let's stick to that ideal - or more accurately, get back to it. That would be quite a reversal of direction for this lame country. Millions defend their Christian and religious crutches.

The United States chided the Soviet Union for being "atheistic, and it's true the Russians thought they might irradicate religion (even the wise Mr. Marx was naive about that). We don't have to be atheists or even agnostics, but we and our courts should uphold a strictly "secular" public sphere and government. Otherwise, we're just still floundering in a sea of gray.


At 3/03/2005 12:24 PM, Blogger Cool Guy J said...

hopefully after all this fuss about the ten commandments being displayed is over, there can be an even bigger uproar over the words "In God We Trust" on money

At 11/07/2005 3:36 AM, Blogger TheDevilIsInTheDetails said...

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