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The logic of revenge breeds destruction
The question is not whether Bundy deserved to die. It is whether we were well served by killing him.

26 January 1989

Humanity's path to civilization has been a ragged track by any measure. Through a few thousand years of recorded history, we've stumbled from slaughter to persecution to inquisition with little more than momentary promise of improvement. Much of human activity has been nasty, bloody and crude.

Now and then some progress intrudes. One generally civilizing trend across the decades has been a retreat from state-sponsored killing -- elimination of the executions that we cloak with the jurisprudential label "capital punishment."

Serious people no longer put much stock in the deterrence theory or any of the other excuses people have used to justify the killings. Pickpockets worked the crowds at medieval hangings that purported to punish and deter pickpockets. Proponents are pretty much forced to admit that revenge is the primary motive for executions, and in most of the developed world, citizens have decided that isn't a worthy goal.

The United States remains a backward exception to that trend, and throughout the country, states still take it upon themselves to kill people convicted of certain crimes.

This amuses the jeering fools who sell tee-shirts and make rude noises in celebration of an electrification like the one that killed Ted Bundy last week. More frighteningly, it also seems to satisfy a more intelligent and generally more civilized constituency, as well.

Yes, state-sponsored killing is becoming respectable again.

It is as if the mouth-breathers with their "Tuesday Is Fryday" placards have pushed the limits so far out that otherwise thoughtful and compassionate people find room to stand in the killing zone alongside them.

Their rationales are more articulate than "Burn, Bundy, Burn," but the result, you will note, is no different: We've killed a man.

Did Ted Bundy deserve to die? Yes. He killed with an icy precision and frequency that stripped him of any pretense of shared humanity. Something at the core of the man was broken, or missing, and he behaved in a sub-human way.

But the question should not be whether he deserved to die. It is whether we were well served by killing him.

In a very real way, his execution served only to legitimize his murders. It endorses the notion that killing is acceptable in our society. It negates the principle that life is sacred.

If your life is sacred, all life is sacred. It is not for man to deny that, to add a "yes, but" to the anthem of creation.

The same logic that killed Ted Bundy for his killings would also have us chopping off the hands of robbers, flogging adulterers in the town square and castrating sex offenders. The logic of revenge is the logic of destruction, and it only breeds more of its own.

In much of the world, society has progressed beyond that. But in the United States and a few backward countries, the tide is running the other way.

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