Last week, Rhode Island announced that it will release Michael Woodmansee from prison this August, 12 years early, because of “good conduct.” He will have served 28 years of his 40-year sentence.
His crime? In 1975, Woodmansee tortured a neighbor’s 5-year-old son to death.
In addition to a boy dying under torture, a family was destroyed. First, the family endured eight years not knowing what had happened to their child — he had simply disappeared. When they finally found out what happened, the news was every parent’s worst nightmare come true — their son had not only been murdered, but had been made to suffer unspeakably. According to the boy’s older sister, the father became an alcoholic and the mother became chronically depressed. Asked on television how her childhood was, the daughter responded, “I didn’t have a childhood.”
For reasons that have always eluded me, many people believe that it is right, compassionate, just and moral to keep people like Woodmansee alive. It has long been clear to me that there is almost no issue — not abortion, same-sex marriage, the size of government, the war in Iraq, taxation, God’s existence, you name it — for which the gulf between people on opposite sides of an issue is as unbridgeable as on the issue of the death penalty for murderers.
Those of us who are for the death penalty are sickened that this man was not killed when first convicted. It sickens us that the family had to live with the daily reality that the torturer and murderer of their son was enjoying his meals, watching TV and sharing the camaraderie of his fellow inmates.
Anyone not sickened by all this not only has a different moral compass from proponents of the death penalty, he or she also has a different heart. Wanting to see all murderers kept alive is to inhabit a different emotional and moral universe from that of the proponents of the death penalty —and from that of the Torah..
Nor am I persuaded by the argument that we cannot execute any murderer, no matter how certain his guilt, because we might execute an innocent person. In America, that is so rare (if it has happened at all in the last half century) that the chances of executing an innocent person — actually executing an innocent person, not sentencing an innocent person to death — are much fewer than the chances of a convicted murderer murdering another prisoner, or murdering a prison guard, or escaping and murdering someone outside of prison. In other words, more innocents die with no capital punishment than with it.
In any event, the vast majority of death penalty opponents are against it even when there is no doubt about the murderer’s guilt. They think the world is a better place if all murderers are allowed to keep their lives.
The Torah differs with them.
It so differs with them that putting murderers to death is the only law to appear in all five books of the Torah. The Torah regards putting premeditated murderers to death as foundational to a decent society. Any Jew or non-Jew can say the Torah is dead wrong here, but no honest person can deny that the Torah views executing murderers as central to a decent society.
Yes, the Torah lists the death penalty for other offences as well, but (a) none are in all five books, (b) the death penalty for murder is one of the basic moral laws God reveals to Noah, and (c) no other time in the Torah is the death penalty declared a fundamental moral value: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made the human.” The Torah asserts the truism that keeping all murderers alive cheapens the value of human life.
In the Torah, there is no other punishment, capital or otherwise, that has anywhere near the significance of the death penalty for murder. Even accidental homicide is punished — though of course not by death — because the taking of a human life is that serious. That is why an animal — even though it has no moral free will — is also put to death if it kills a person. Human life is cheapened when takers of human life are allowed to keep their own life, let alone be released from prison after 29 years.
Many Jewish opponents of the death penalty point to Israel, which has disallowed capital punishment since its establishment.
That argument, however, is entirely irrelevant. Israel was founded by Jews who took their values from the European Enlightenment, not from the Torah, and that is why they banned capital punishment in Israel.
Moreover, Israel’s actual behavior argues for support of, not opposition to, the death penalty.
Example one: Israel executed Adolf Eichmann. Keeping Eichmann alive would have mocked the millions of Jews whose murders he oversaw. But executing Eichmann put Israel in a morally untenable position. It means that a man who murders millions deserves to die, but a man who murders five people or one person doesn’t.
Question: How, pray tell, was it morally right to kill Eichmann, but morally wrong to kill Woodmansee?
Example two: Israel made sure to kill every terrorist involved in the Munich massacre of the Israeli Olympic team. If that wasn’t the death penalty for murder, then it was simply vengeance.
Example three: That Yigal Amir, the murderer of Yitzchak Rabin, was not put to death is a moral scandal. Because Israel was founded largely by a socialist party with European liberal values, Amir has been allowed to marry and to father a child. Which is more morally obscene — executing Amir or allowing him to live, marry, and father a child?
Yes, I know the rabbis, a thousand years after the Torah, made capital punishment for murder almost impossible. They did so because they lived among the Romans, who executed hundreds of innocent people on a good day. And they did so when there was no Jewish society in which to apply their ruling; their ruling was purely theoretical.
So, once again, I’ll take the Torah’s values over the progressives’. Because if no murderer is ever put to death, murder — even the torture-murder of a little boy — isn’t particularly evil. And what does it say about a society that sentences a Madoff to 200 years in prison and a Woodmansee to 40 (less 12 for “good conduct”)?
Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (www.prageru.com).