Undoubtedly, prosperity changes many equations. But there is another, more symbolic sense in which our practices of punishment “defend society.” The earthly city is not simply a compact of men and women organized for mutual protection. Society also embodies and expresses a moral vision. As legal theorists have recognized, the law gives important public form to this moral vision. When the jury pronounces judgment and the judge sentences, they are acting for a moment as teachers. “This is wrong,” says the verdict, and “it’s exactly this bad,” says the sentence weighing out the punishment. You know a lot about a society when you find out what it criminalizes and how it punishes. Rightly are feminists outraged by older judicial systems that assessed and punished male and female sexual transgressions according to different standards.
Death dramatizes. Sophocles and Shakespeare knew it, as do today’s moviemakers. So do voters, and here we come, I think, to the core of the current popular support for the death penalty. An execution is like a bullhorn. It says loud and clear, “As a society, we see this criminal’s act as unequivocally wrong, and we will resist it to the utmost.”
Recently, a high-profile priest who has a column on FoxNews.com wrote a piece on the death penalty that equated pro-capital punishment with either revenge or pre-emptive discipline. I didn't have the words to defend capital punishment, in which I believe, but I believe that Reno's analysis expresses my sentiments.
We have a responsibility to create a just society, meaning a society that expresses the virtue of justice. It is essential for the good ordering of a society that evil men fear the outcomes of their actions. It would be nice if everyone did the right thing because it was good and because it was rewarded. But in the earthly city, the sword will always keep order.
Despite his intelligent articulations, Reno actually comes to the conclusion that the power to inflict capital punishment should not be invested in the secular state. His article is here.