Letter from OADP Advisory Council Member: Capital punishment makes us all barbarians
Dr. Hugo Bedau, a long-time professor of philosophy at Tufts University, died earlier this week ( New York Times , August 17, 2012, p. B14). He was
born in Portland. Professor Bedau devoted much of his career to the systematic, rigorous and socially conscious study of the death penalty and
made his scholarship relevant for legislators, other policy makers, the courts and the legal profession in general. He wrote, among many other
works, the most widely read text on the subject, The Death Penalty in America , which has been widely used in courses in Criminology and in law
schools since 1964.
Had Professor Bedau's health permitted participating in a broad public discussion on the death penalty in Oregon -- a discussion that engaged our
elected officials, legal scholars, and our fellow citizens - - he would have enlightened all of us and perhaps swayed some of us in our fragmented,
emotional responses to the case of Gary Haugen, his demand to be executed and Governor Kitzhaber's decision to halt executions during his term in
office. It would be presumptuous to predict the specific contribution Professor Bedau might have made to such a discussion, but the gist of his
work over a long and distinguished career can be distilled into two points.
First, legislators, executives and the general public make the most crucial decisions about the death penalty largely on the basis of emotion, without
open -- and open-minded-- deliberation. We should not be guilty of allowing either raw passions or lack of careful thought and deep consideration
determine our actions. The second point Professor Bedau often emphasized underlines the importance of the first: as he demonstrated through
compelling reason and detailed evidence, capital punishment is a manifestation of the vestiges of barbarism. It engages the state and makes
it the agent of killing, in the name of all of us. By implication, we are all responsible, even the significant number of citizens who abhor the death
penalty. In sum, capital punishment makes us all barbarians.
Martin O. Heisler
Member of the Advisory Council of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty